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Authorities recover body from Ohio River as flash flooding hits Ohio Valley again


WHEELING, W.Va. – Amid the chaos of what Ohio County Emergency Management Director Lou Vargo called the worst flooding he’s seen since the devastation caused by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, crews recovered a body from the Ohio River early this morning which they believe is that of a teenager who has been the subject of a search since Sunday.

Emergency crews and family members have been searching for 19-year-old Page Gellner since late Sunday, when she and her boyfriend, 24-year-old Michael Grow, were swept by raging floodwater into Browns Run. Grow died at a local hospital after being pulled from the water.

Just before midnight, authorities were alerted to a body spotted in the Ohio River near Heritage Port in Wheeling. Teams from Wheeling’s police and fire departments used several boats to search the river, eventually discovering the body of a female.

According to Ohio County Emergency Management Director Lou Vargo, the body was being transported to Wheeling Hospital early this morning for positive identification.

However, he said authorities were aware of only one missing person in the area’s waterways.

“We were only searching for one person, so that is the assumption,”Vargo said.

The timeline for confirming the identity of the body by a medical examiner was unclear early today, though Vargo said Gellner’s family had identified markings on her body for which to look.

Wheeling Fire Chief Larry Helms said the ongoing flooding complicated the recovery effort.

“There’s so much debris in the river right now, (our boat) actually had to float along with a pile of debris to avoid damaging our (propellers),” he said.

Now, just as it seemed things were returning to normal for those impacted by Sunday’s flooding, cleanup must begin anew after Mother Nature dumped more rain on the Ohio Valley late Friday and early today.

“We’ll be starting all over in another part of the city and county (today),” Vargo said during a press conference early this morning.

Residents in various places were evacuated from their homes, and Vargo said at least one home along Peters Run Road was threatened by a landslide. Another in the area was surrounded by water, Vargo said.

Officials are urging area residents to stay off the roads unless it’s absolutely necessary for them to be out.

“Tomorrow, a hillside that looks perfectly stable might come down … ,” said Ohio County Sheriff Tom Howard. “If you have to get out, drive very, very slow.”

Elsewhere in the Ohio Valley, Shadyside in Belmont County and McMechen in Marshall County took the brunt of Friday’s flooding, although emergency officials in those counties had not reported any serious injuries as of just before midnight. According to Marshall County Emergency Management Director Tom hart, some areas received more than 4 inches of rain.

“Right now, we’ve got major flooding in McMechen … ,” Hart said at about 11:30 p.m. “They’ve had to do some water rescues, but until the water recedes we won’t be able to get a true assessment of the damage.”

McMechen Volunteer Fire Department Crews received assistance from the Benwood and Glen Dale VFDs, as well as the Wheeling Fire Department swift water team.

Hart said the McMechen VFD’s firehouse appeared to have sustained serious damage.

Prayer Hill Church of God on 36th Street in South Wheeling has opened as an emergency shelter for any displaced McMechen residents.

Benwood also received flooding as well, according to Hart, with water reported in some businesses along Marshall Street. Hart said there were also some reports of minor flooding near Little Grave Creek.

The rain came fast and it came hard in Shadyside, where the water quickly rose on the village’s streets, according to Belmont County Emergency Management Director Dave Ivan.

“We’ve got a good bit of street flooding going on… from the north end to the south end, and anywhere in between,” he said.

By about 11:30 p.m., Ivan said the situation appeared to be improving.

“Central Avenue, you could have fished out there about an hour ago,” he said.

According to Ivan, there were reports of flooding off of Pinch Run, and New Cut Road, northwest of Shadyside, was washed out.

Ivan said he was not aware of any reports of serious injuries due to the flooding, and he noted most of the issues seemed to be with street flooding, rather than creeks and streams.

In Wheeling, the Elm Grove area was inundated, with reports of basement flooding and high water on roads. Peters Run Road was shut down, as was Kruger Street, for a time. A man became stranded in his vehicle in the middle of Kruger Street near its intersection with National Road, but firefighters on scene said he made it to safety.

Flooding also was reported in the Springdale area of Wheeling.

While weather conditions are expected to improve this weekend, officials warn recreational boaters to be cautious. Local creeks and streams will be clogged with debris – even as large as trees – making things dangerous, particularly for novice boaters.

“We’d like to say don’t be out there … but if you are going to be out there, use the proper protection, flotation devices,” Howard said.

Howard said although first responders such as police and firefighters get much of the credit for disaster response – and deservedly so – he also praised those behind the scenes, from public works employees to West Virginia Division of Highways workers and dispatchers.

“The (Wheeling) Operations Department is working tirelessly to get residents back to normal,” he said.

Vargo said he can’t say enough about the 911 dispatchers who must keep their cool in stressful situations.

“It’s a tough job back there. … You just can’t answer the calls fast enough,” Vargo said.

Vargo acknowledged it’s been a difficult week, searching day after day for Gellner with no results until late Friday.

“We’ve lost two precious lives. … we’ve felt like failures. We needed to get closure for this family, and tonight we did,” he said.

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