Governor declares emergency after SW Va. flooding

Mike Still • Feb 6, 2020 at 10:00 PM

NORTON — Gov. Ralph Northam has declared a state of emergency after heavy rains flooded several areas in Southwest Virginia Thursday.

Northam’s declaration for the entire state came after overnight rains soaked the ground and swelled rivers and streams across far Southwest Virginia Thursday, blocking some roads with high water and closing schools and government offices.

The Wise County Courthouse and all county offices are closed Friday.

“This weather is potentially dangerous, and rivers and streams can reach flood stage hours after the rain has passed,” Northam said in a statement. “I urge all Virginians to monitor forecasts and be prepared to obey local evacuation orders if needed. We are grateful to first responders who are working to rescue people from flooded homes and keep citizens safe.”

While officials in Wise, Lee and Scott counties and Norton were reporting only a few rescues of flood-threatened people, the governor said the Richlands area in Tazewell County has seen more than 500 people being rescued or displaced because of heavy flooding there.

Northam said the state of emergency allows the commonwealth to mobilize resources and position people and equipment to help with storm response and recovery efforts.

Officials in Wise, Lee and Scott counties and Norton were reporting no known injuries or deaths from the flooding that hit communities from Gate City to Pound. All four school systems closed Thursday and announced they will be closed Friday.

The University of Virginia’s College at Wise and Mountain Empire Community College closed Thursday, and UVA-Wise will be on a 90-minute delay Friday.

Second District Del. Terry Kilgore on Thursday said he had spoken with state Department of Emergency Management officials who are monitoring conditions in the region. He asked residents to check local news and the state Department of Transportation for updates on road conditions.

Kilgore also advised residents needing assistance to call Emergency Management at (804) 897-6500 or his office at (804) 698-1001.

Wise County Emergency Coordinator Jessica Swiney said that emergency shelters were opened Thursday in Coeburn, St. Paul and Appalachia as the Guest, Clinch and Powell rivers swelled and threatened a number of communities. A few people had gone to the Appalachia shelter, she said.

Anyone needing shelters can call 911, Swiney said, and the county’s Animal Control department will work with those who also need shelter for pets.

Swiney said the Tacoma community west of Coeburn saw large areas of flooding Thursday, and Coeburn Fire Department personnel with a rescue boat were seen heading to Tacoma in the afternoon.

Jake Kokoska was waiting at River Bend Road in Tacoma Thursday to see how he was going to get across a flooded section of the highway.

“I’ve lived here for 60 years, all my life, and it’s always flooded like this,” Kokoska said.

“We did get reports about receding waters in Big Stone Gap, which was good news,” Swiney said. Big Stone Gap’s Greenbelt was submerged in some places, with up to eight feet of water covering the walkway near the Jessica Lea RV Park.

In Wise, the Railroad Avenue section of town saw flooding of several residential yards. Deanna Browning White watched as her yard was being pumped out.

“They’ve got to fix this,” White said of drainage conditions that backed up about 2 feet of water in her yard and close to her house. She said that sort of flooding from heavy rains became a regular event after a housing development was build next to her home.

Norton Police Chief James Lane said flooding hit the East Park Avenue, Ramsey and Dorchester sections of the city. A playground in Ramsey was submerged and rising waters threatened a nearby housing complex, he said, while the Guest River along East Park Avenue and across from Norton Elementary School appeared to be flooding worse than normal for a heavy rain event.

Lane said no requests for shelter or rescue had come to police Thursday.

In Scott County, Sheriff Jeff Eads said Business U.S. 23 in Gate City and Filter Plant Road saw high water Thursday. No shelter had been set up by Thursday afternoon and dispatchers had not received calls for shelter or rescue, he added.

Lee County sheriff’s dispatchers said some roads had seen high water, but no calls for flood rescue had been received.

Virginia Department of Transportation Bristol District spokesperson Michelle Earl said seven primary highways across the 12-county and two-city district had been affected by flooding, including Route 421 in Lee County, Business U.S. 23 in Pound and Business U.S. 23 in Gate City.

More than 100 secondary roads across the district had seen some flooding or damage from falling rocks or minor slides, Earl said, and VDOT crews had been busy posting high water signs, clearing debris and monitoring road conditions.

Motorists can check on the status of primary and secondary roads by checking www.511virginia.org or by downloading the 511 app.

Virginia State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller said motorists across the area seemed to have adjusted their driving to road conditions Thursday, although at least one motorist was stranded in high water on Route 65 in Clinchport Thursday.

Geller said motorists should avoid driving through flooded sections of roads because the water could be hiding debris or other dangers. Floodwaters could also stall or sweep away vehicles, she said.

Times News reporter Kevin Mays contributed to this report.

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