Seng Creek, near Kayford Mountain
Thursday, August 31st, 2006
Penny Loeb is a distinguished author and the web designer for http://www.wvcoalfield.com , who has generously allowed her articles to be reprinted here.
The waters rose fast along Seng Creek that morning of Sunday, July 8, 2001. The rain began around 6 a.m. and continued for three or four hours. When it stopped, the creek was still clear. Then all of a sudden it rose like a fire hose had been turned on. To those watching it seemed like a waterfall on flat land. Within what seemed like minutes, the water had curled over the edge of the creek and was spreading out like fingers opening wide.
Patty Crichfield was still in bed when the water reached her house, about a mile down the hollow. Her husband saw the water coming, but didn’t want to wake her. After all, the main floor of the house is four feet above the ground–and the house did withstand the flood of 1916. All of a sudden, the water burst under the front door like an uninvited guest. “It came so fast,” she said. “We had no time to think.” She had laid her Sunday School clothes out the night before. Quickly, she pulled on her pants over her nightgown, and they rushed out the back door and followed a raised bank until they reached safety at a nearby cement building. There they stayed for nearly four hours until the rain stopped and the waters began to recede.
Everything inside within a foot of the floor was soaked. Patty had to tear out the living room carpet. The little room off the kitchen has a floor covered in mud. Clothes and furniture were damaged beyond repair. Even the bottoms of the curtains that she had hand embroidered are covered in mud. She was proud of her flower garden in front of the house. Her family had just bought her a little wndmill that she had wanted for some time. The flood waters took it away. Four days after the flood, much of the three-mile long Seng Creek community was still covered in mud. The Crichfields would rather stay somewhere else. But, like their neighbors, they are afraid of the looters. So they slept on mattresses on the floor, protecting what was left. Patty hopes FEMA will condemn her house. They have $70,000 invested in it; she doubts she could get more than $500 now. Just where they would move, she doesn’t know. “He lived here 65 years,” she said of her husband. “I don’t think he would be happy anwhere else.”
The Crichfields were actually somewhat lucky; they still had some of their belongings and family treasures. Clifford Skeens lost absolutely everything he owned, even his clothes. He and his wife were outside when they heard something pop; then the flood came. The angry mess of mud swept into his house, lathering everything in its path. Skeens didn’t live in a flood plain, so he didn’t have flood insurance. It was too expensive. Homeowners’ insurance doesn’t cover his home or his belongings.
His daughter-in-law, Chris Skeens, lives about 10 miles away at Twin Poplar along the Coal River. Her relatives called and said watch out, it’s coming. And so came the waters. She has photos of her yard with water at thigh heighth.
Skeens and others who live on Seng Creek blame Arch Coal’s Catenary Coal mountaintop mine at the end of the hollow. “I’ve lived here 61 years. Since they started stripping two years ago, it keeps getting where water come off,” Skeens sad. “You can go up and look at the strip job. Got it all elevated. Anything coming off will hit this hollow. I know next time someone will get killed. Maybe 10,000 peple need to rise up get something done.”
DEP did issue a violation to the mine. The inspector found that a ditch the end of the valley fill had breached and caused water heading toward the sediment pond to divert and head down Seng Creek, adding to the flooding.
Ironically, Seng Creek had flooded a little over a year earlier, on Memorial Day weekend of 2000. Nobody’s homes were badly damaged, but a lot of mud came off the hillside. Those who walked up to see the valley fill and ponds found timbering had taken all the trees off one hill. This bareness probably contributed more to the flooding than the valley fill, they said. Another problem was the ditches and culverts on the Seng Creek road. The DEP, Office of Surface Mining and state highway department all investigated. None blamed the mine. But it’s unclear whether the ditches and culverts were ever cleared.
About six weeks after the flood, Bob Gates photographed the fill from the area. He found the storm water had cut a deep new ditch alongside the fill. There was a moat-like ditch around the circumference of the fill, near the top. Bob Gates determined that the water pushed through the side of the ditch, and its force pushed down the hill and into the community. Residents reported that the flood seemed to come off the hill, not from the stream.
Residents of Seng Creek, Clear Fork, Dorothy and other flooded areas met with Matthew Crum, the new mining director of DEP, the evening of July 12. Nearly 150 local residents, journalists and public officials crowded into the office of Coal River Mountain Watch in Whitesville. “That was the first time I went to a meeting,” Patty Crichfield said. “Both my son-in-laws work at the mines non-union. They don’t like when I talk about it.” But one son-in-law, was flooded out about 10 miles away in Dorothy when a sediment pond collapsed at Addington’s Princess Beverly mine. “He hasn’t said anything, but I think he feels differently now,” she said.