Early Sunday morning, July 8, Lawrence Tilley was watching the waters in Milam Fork rise. The rain was falling hard, but he thought the storm would be about the same as a month earlier. He told his friend to watch the high-water mark on the house in the flatland along the creek. They watched the water level jump past the mark, and then the water leaped the bridge about 1000 feet away. Quickly, the churning, instantaneous ocean rose to nearly 12 feet.
I listened to what he saw next and shuddered as he described chaos and death in what sounded like a police diagram of a traffic accident. There were two houses in the flatland below the camper he used as home. Bonnie Shumate, 58, lived in the one on the right end. Water was now above the creek edge and rushing over the flatland and by the houses. A log came rolling down the water, hit Shumates home and knocked it off the foundation. It floated down until it collided with the bridge. Gloria Sinecoffs trailer, which was on the nearby hillside, let loose next, riding the water down and landing on the left side of Shumates home. Then the second house on the flatland was washed away down to the right side of Shumates.
The two structures squeezed the elderly womans house while she stood inside, frozen with terror. Several men in the area, including Brandon Cozart, Kelly Moore and Kevin Fortner tried to save her. Though she attended church regularly, she was afraid to open the door if she didnt know the men. So when they tried to get her to leave, she refused. They attempted to stretch ladders from the two homes on the sides. When that failed, they got boats. Cozart capsized and climbed a tree to safety, where he stayed for four hours, with a white cat as a companion.
Before the other men could reach Shumate, the force from the squeezing structures on either side pushed the floor down, and she was washed into the violent water. A few hours later, Moore spotted a pair of tennis shoes floating, toes upright, near Teresa Smiths home, just on the other side of the bridge. Shumates hair and dress had caught on a wire fence, and she was unable to struggle free. "It was the most horrendous thing I ever saw," Moore said. "She was all swoll up."
Fortunately, Moore and some other men were able to retrieve three other elderly women from their homes in Shumate Hollow and carry them to safety in the boat. Its fortunate the men were resourceful. "We called 911," Tina Webb said. "They said they would be here in 45 minutes." Gloria Sinecoff was counting the minutes: "We didnt see no one for four hours," she said. And when they did come, they just left Bonnie Shumates body lying uncovered on the road, the women explained.
It was four days before the bridge was repaired so cars could come in and out of the hollow.
Bonnie Shumate was found just downstream from this patch of flowers in Teresa Smith's yard.
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Shumate Hollow is in McGraws, just off County Route 5, about 3 miles north of Saulsville and 35 minutes southwest of Beckley. Yet, the families who have been born and raised in the hollow often feel a thousand miles from civilization. A county route too small for listing on the state maps stretches through the hollow for about a mile, squeezing next to the railroad tracks. At one end are a large white stucco-cement house and an equally massive brick home. Closer to the bridge across the creek are smaller homes squeezed on the banks. The flatland was wider, but its residences have been erased, except for parts of the concrete-block foundations. Along the back side of the creek are several small homes, a larger farmhouse on the hill and a spare church of rogh wood, board-and-batten siding, painted grey.
Only about 15 families live in the hollow, and many are Shumates or Trumps. Lincoln and Elsie Shumate could be considered the elders of the community. Lincoln, 62, pastors the Pentecostal church, which draws as many as 50 worshipers from as far away as Beckley on Sundays.
Elsie, 66, moved to Shumate Hollow when she was 15 and soon she fell in love with the handsome young Lincoln. As frailty creeps into their aging bodies, they protect each other. Lincoln has had three heart attacks, and Elsie tries to get him to turn preaching duties over to younger men some nights. Lincoln is afraid to let Elsie out of his sight every since she fell and broke her right arm last winter. Right now, about all they have is each other. Their house was washed away in the flood as well.
The house swept down the creek, past the bridge, hit the fortress-like white cement house, and exploded, according to someone who watched. They lost all their belongings, including their car and what money they had. Friends cleaned out a shed along the bank for them. Later they were able to find a camper, which is where they were living in early August.
Members cleaned out the church in three days. Services resumed, with a lot of prayers and pleas to God.
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Most of the families in Shumate Hollow have joined the class action lawsuit, which was filed within a week of the flood. It charges that mines and timber companies diverted and impounded the water that caused damage. The McGraws area has been extensively timbered in the last few years. Nearly all of the most damaged communities in the 100-mile-long and 50-foot-wide swath of the flood have either recent timbering, large mountaintop removal mines, or older surface and deep mining.
"They cut the timber out, and all this ran out," Rodney Trump said. "It looks pretty, but you go back in there and all through are nothing but logging roads. They call West Virginia almost Heaven. Hell cant be too bad, way I feel after they got through butchering this place."
Tilley and Trump reeled off the places that have been timbered: the hillside behind their hollow, Shaft Hollow in McGraws, Glen Rogers. Tilley said Polk Mountain is cut up by roads for gas wells.
Elsie Shumate isnt so quick to blame the loggers. "No one caused that death," she said. "If I go to court, I would say no one is to blame for her death but the water."
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Blue tarpaulins appear to be the decoration of necessity in Shumate Hollow. The water rose in the camper next to the church where Tilley lived. FEMA declared it a total loss. So he strung a tarpaulin from the bank to a red car. Underneath are coolers and waterproof storage boxes. "Thats my place," he said. I'm just waiting."
Teresa Smith has moved her family's belongings over to this camper near her house, which was condemned
Waiting for FEMA, is a common refrain in the hollow. At least twice, FEMA has promised the Shumates a temporary trailer, which they could buy after 18 months. They price could be any amount, from $1 upward, Elise said. But a FEMA representative said the road is too narrow for the trailer. FEMA was looking into airlifting the trailer. Then Elsie was informed that FEMA would pay $14,400, which is being given to at least some who lost their homes. She and Lincoln plan to buy the land where their home was. How they will build a house, she doesnt know. Lincoln is too weak to tackle major construction.
Teresa Smith didnt lose her house to the flood waters. First Fema said she should clean it out, which she started. But then the fire marshal condemned it, painting the orange numbers as a mark of finality. She and her husband and their two daughters moved their belongings over to a camper they rented. A blue tarpaulin stretches out as a canopy over the spilloverand Whitey, the friendly feline who spent the afternoon with the man stranded in the tree.
Smith has been pestering FEMA and the other relief agencies every day. They want to give her three months rent and restore her personal property. The house she lived in had been her fathers before he died. But she also owns a piece of land up the hill, out of reach of any rising waters. FEMA has offered her a trailer, and she thought that land would be a suitable site. But FEMA believes it is inaccessible, too. They have offered her a trailer in the relief site at a former drive-in movie in Pineville. But she fears she and her husband would have to give up their three beagles, new litter of puppies, three cats and three rabbits. "They want to pack us in like sardines," she said.
The month since the flood has been a confusing time for Shumate Hollow residents. "Ive never been through anything like this. I dont know how to deal with it," Smith said. "Im disgusted. I always thought the government was here to help us."
Her neighbor is getting help from a mobile home dealer in Beckley, who is helping flood victims. She was planning to see if she could get a trailer from him. "I dont want to build a $200,000 or $300,000 house," she said. "I just want a little trailer." Her husband has bladder disease and has to travel nearly 75 miles to Bluefield for treatment. Her daughters are 16 and 10, and with school starting soon, a camper isnt adequate.
"Its like we dont exist," she said. "Or they dont want us to exist."
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On July 11, three days after her great aunt drowned, Sarah Nicole Rose Trump was born. Lincoln and Elsie Shumate are her great grandparents.