MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — The Berkeley County Sheriff’s Department held a press conference Wednesday to share experiences helping southern West Virginia residents after the devastating flood.
Members of the department made several trips, spending weeks at the afflicted areas to aid in the recovery process. Their experiences tell the tale of survival and coming together as only West Virginians can.
“Talk about resilience,” said Cpl. C. Cochran. “There are a lot of good stories of everyday people becoming heroes, one story after another.”
The flood, which claimed the lives of 26 West Virginians, happened June 23 and communities rallied to their aid. The Berkeley County community quickly mobilized and gathered tons of supplies. Members of the sheriff department drove down June 27 to deliver items.
“I didn’t expect it to be that bad,” Cochran said. “Houses were still smoldering.”
Massive flooding left countless homeless and community infrastructures crippled. Once they arrived, locals immediately put them to work.
“They said drop your trailers off, we need your bodies instead,” Cochran said. “We assisted in victim recovery and police some out-of-state looters.”
In order to deal with the plethora of problems facing the region, deputies were assisting in anyway they could.
“The first trip was to just take supplies,” said Sheriff Kenny Lemaster. “But once they got there, men were pulled in all kinds of different directions.”
The sheriff department’s mobile command center was deployed in White Sulphur Springs as deputies dispersed to nearby areas in great need of assistance.
“Places had long stretches of road taken out,” said Jason Scales, community service head. “We saw 50-ton bridges taken off and flipped some 400 yards away.”
The damage to roads and bridges made transportation very difficult.
“We had to be escorted because traffic was ridiculous,” Cochran said. “A 26-mile trip between areas we needed to be took an hour and a half.”
Most of the recovery team packed for a limited excursion but plans quickly changed.
“We had originally packed for a 3-day adventure but ended up staying weeks,” Cochran said. “No one wanted to leave.”
The sheriff’s department expected to just drop supplies, but the citizens greatly appreciated the officer’s willingness to assist.
“The majority of the towns were affected,” said Deputy T. Dopson. “If not floods then mudslides. The mayor had some stay with him because there were few places to sleep because of the damage.”
Members of the sheriff’s department also assisted in body recovery due to the high-volume of missing people.
“Most of the body recovery was around the Greenbrier golf course,” Cochran said. “We did help pull out a victim.”
Police dogs from West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and Indiana were utilized throughout the areas in hopes of quickly finding those missing, deputies said.
“We know a 14-year-old is still missing in the area we were at,” Cochran said.
Despite all the devastation, the community showed extreme resilience and optimism about the events.
“We never heard a single complaint about what happened,” Cochran said. “We had one firefighter who managed to get his wife to safety and by the time he got back, his house was gone. He was out helping immediately.”
Perhaps the willingness to quickly come together as a community and help those less fortunate is a big part of what it means to be a West Virginian.
“It was a big effort to receive and distribute the supplies we gathered at the station,” Lemaster said. “A lot of volunteers and some of the wives came out and donated hours of their time.”
The department was able to quickly raise tons of supplies with the help of community involvement as 7 truck loads and many trailer loads of goods were dispatched from the sheriff’s department alone.
“It’s amazing, people without anything would give you the shirt off their back,” Lemaster said. “West Virginia came together.”
Sheriff’s department members assisting with the flood recovery praised the efforts of other groups who donated time and supplies to the residents in the southern part of the state.
“John Unger’s group was doing great things down there,” Lemaster said. “We had a lot of help from county governments and county commissions. The volunteer fire departments sent tons of supplies.”
“I know Randy Smith gave $10,000 personally and his foundation matched it,” Cochran said. “The money was sent to Brad Paisley’s GoFundMe page for relief efforts.”
Areas are starting to get back to normal but it will be a long and slow recovery.
“They just got power back the day we left,” Dopson said.
People are still encouraged to help with local law enforcement.
“Donation efforts are still ongoing as needs change,” Scales said. “They aren’t accepting clothing unless it’s new, but what they need are building supplies now.”
The Eastern Panhandle is a particularly wealthy area compared to a lot of West Virginia and “Berkeley County was a blessing to some. People were very appreciative,” deputies said.
Some parts of the state may see the Eastern Panhandle as isolated but they know locals will help, we’re all West Virginians in this together, deputies added.
Key members of the department’s response team included Cpl. C. Cochran; Dep. T. Dopson; Dep. M. Stewart; Dep. D. Cox; Dep. B. Humphrey; Lt. T. Young; Comm. Service Jason Scales; Dep. J. Giangola; and Dep. J. Whitehead.
Staff writer Matt Dellinger can be reached at 304-263-2903, ext. 128 or www.twitter.com/MattDellJN