Reverend and Musician John Wyatt Still Haunted by Memories of 1,000-Year Flood

Jun 19, 2017

Friday June 23rd marks the one year anniversary of the 1,000 year floods, which left 23 dead in West Virginia and thousands of homes and businesses destroyed. West Virginia Public Broadcasting is spending the next few days hearing from some of the people who were affected by the flood, and hearing how residents are rebuilding their communities.

In a quiet neighborhood in Rainelle, John Wyatt just completed renovations on his one story home. Volunteer workers with the faith-based Appalachian Service Project spent the past year helping put up drywall, cleaning out the mud, putting on a new porch, and making the house livable again.

But he still can’t shake the memories of that tragic night, when he joined the rescue operations, paddling a rescue boat, and saving people who were trapped in the flood waters.

“As time goes on, we’re struggling to get through the after effects of what went on during the flood, when you guys filmed me after the flood, and you were filming me then, and I was talking about how I could hear those cries of the people in the dark.”

15 people died in Greenbrier County during the flood. Many of them were Wyatt’s friends and neighbors in Rainelle.

A video of this story will be featured in a new 30 minute Inside Appalachia TV episode about the 1000 year flood in West Virginia. Watch it June 20th at 6:30 on West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

“And for weeks and weeks you know, that was something I’d wake in the middle of the night and I would think about that.” 

Wyatt was one of those who escaped the flood with his life but lost all his possessions, including his musical instruments and years of recorded oral histories with his family and friends.

"It's a little frightening to look at our town. I know where each person lived, so many of them, and those houses are gone now."- John Wyatt

This past year, he’s been so busy working on his home, and volunteering to help other people, he hasn’t had a lot of energy to do the things he used to do, like play music, or sit on his back porch and relax over a cup of coffee.

Wyatt isn't the only one who's trying to get back to normal. More than one hundred and twenty homeowners in Rainelle have applied to FEMA for help demolishing their damaged homes. That’s a huge loss for a community with just under 1,500 people.

Wyatt drives through town, pointing out the homes that were lost. “It’s a little frightening to look at our town. I know where each person lived, so many of them, and those houses are gone now," said Wyatt. “I’m the only house left in this entire block. And all the other homes, seven or eight of them are gone.”

Dave Lumsden, chairman of the Greater Greenbrier Longterm recovery Committee, asks Rainelle resident Sharon G. Martin how she is doing in her new apartment. Martin’s home was destroyed in the flood. She’s been living with family for the past year.
Credit Russ Barbour/ WVPB

Across town from John Wyatt, Sharon G Martin has just moved into a small, one-bedroom apartment. She lost her home in the flood, and she’s been living with family for the past year.

Dave Lumsden, chairman of the Greater Greenbrier Longterm recovery Committee, delivered a new donated mattress and a box spring to her new apartment.

The Greater Greenbrier Longterm Recovery Committee is a local organization that helps coordinate resources to help flood victims, like Martin.

Her face is worn with worry from the past year, but her bright green eyes are shining as she realizes she won’t have to sleep on the floor tonight. “I’ve always been a positive thinker. So I always have faith and hope for the best. And things are falling in place. I’m happy. It’s better now, and it’s getting better," Martin said, looking over her new furniture that charity groups had donated.

Martin has been waiting to get an apartment for the past 10 months while she stayed with her daughter.

Others had to leave Rainelle, or West Virginia, to try to settle someplace new.

John Wyatt said he's watched some of his close friends move away.

“I pastor a small church outside of Rainelle, and we’re down to just bare minimum. We were a small church before the flood, but we’re a really small church now since the flood. Because we’ve had people that moved away.”

Rainelle was struggling economically before the flood. With the decline in the timber industry, many jobs here have disappeared over the past fifty years.

But, Wyatt said, there’s a positive change in the air too, something he hasn’t seen in decades. “I do see something happening that wasn’t happening before the flood. I see people working together, and I see the community coming together.”

Thousands of volunteers have poured into Rainelle this past year, most of them from out of state.

“Not only did they come in and hang sheet rock and paint houses and do all the work that they’ve done, but they brought hope to people again,” said Wyatt.

Rebuilding this town will take years. Wyatt said he’s looking forward to volunteering again next year with the Appalachian Service Project, as they continue to help people who lost their homes in the flood.