Two weeks after the floods, the lawn at the house across from Jake's Grocery in Worth was still covered not just with mud and rocksmost of mess was actually pieces of coal. The house is on the bank of North Fork, across the road from Jakes Grocery, and the closest structure to the intersection of Bear Wallow Creek with the North Fork.
It wasnt hard to find what appears to be the source of the coal. Less than a mile up the road along Bear Wallow is a hillside of black: an old slag dump. If it had any cover, its gone. Now its just a side hill of black coal, about 25 feet high and 100 feet long. Large slips were evident nearly six weeks after the flood, gullies that likely carried the coal into the creek and down to Worth and the lawns nearby.
Theres more loose coal remaining on lawns and the banks of the Northfork east of the junction with Bear Wallow, near the community of McDowell. The cause of this isnt as obvious. You have to drive up the road that rises sharply up the mountain south of Worth. Suddenly, the light behind the trees turns to black. And there it is: a hill of unreclaimed waste coal. Its dry and loose, great fun for a kid. Here the slippage into the stream can be seen as well.
Old slag piles arent all thats on the hills here. Beyond this larger slag pile is a large timbering site, where trees were removed two to three years ago. John Wilson of Leckie and his son, Anthony, took me up there because John knew the area. He had harvested $4,000 worth of black cohosh, ginseng, yellow root and other herbs from those hills a couple of years earlier.
We zig zagged up the mountain, following the serpentine of logging roads. Like many of the timbering jobs, only the best trees had been removed. Scrub trees and piles of waste lumber remained. Pieces of trees lay alongside the roads that had been plowed through the woods. There was significant washout along a few of the steeper roads, and some of the brush and small trunks had tumbled down the hillside.
John stopped several times to show me the cohosh bushes and sprignot. Ironically, he said, there is more money to be made from the herbs that grow in the forest than from the timber that is taken out.
He has some land in Raleigh County, and he still owns the mineral rights. It had been his fathers land, and he had never wanted it mined or timbered. John has had offers for the timber, but wont sell it. Maybe Anthony will, he said. But not if he remembers what I taught him. Ten-year-old Anthony replied: I wont.
Vickie Nichols lives just below this timbering site and slag hill. Weve seen water run off the mountains, she said. But weve never seen it run off like this and weve been here 45 years. Where theyve been up there logging and leaving all the trees, it gets more room to run down.
Carol and Jake Potter lived in a trailer next to their store when the floods hit. Their trailer now sits in a pile of sand several feet high. The orange numbers, so common now in the flooded areas, mark its impending demise. Their car was destroyed, and mud oozed through the store.
Carol puts part of the blame on the mining and timbering up Bear Wallow. She recalled there was logging there in 1996, and rain brought a flood then. Now, she said, They are back up there logging.
Shes right. Its a new timbering job, about a quarter mile past the smaller slag pile. According to the Division of Forestry, the work is being done by Spud Enterprises, owned by Thomas Cline. It is a contractor for Gilbert Lumber Company. There are several wide dirt roads cut up the hillside. Erosion was evident along the edge of the road up the hollow.
The government doesnt care about the poor people living below all this, Carol Potter said. Like the mines up there; all this coal did not come from the river.
Jake Potter would like to see better regulations. They should have to publish in the paper so people can protest (like mines have to), he said.
The Potters store wasnt open for business during the cleanup. But it and the parking lot served a vital purpose as host to the Salvation Army, Red Cross and National Guard. The Salvation Army fed 550 people a day for three weeks. Inside the store, a table is still covered with forms and information brochures on how to get relief. A plaque rests on one corner. Its an appreciation to the Potters from their help with flood relief from the 122nd Battalion of the Army National Guard. They were great, the Potters agreed.
Now the Potters would like a little relief themselves. Fortunately, they did have flood insurancebut they havent been able to collect it yet. This has prevented them from getting an adequate sized temporary trailer from FEMA. They did get a camper, but theres not enough room to turn around.
Dirt, rock and coal remain in the yard alongside the store, where their old trailer and the camper sit. Id like to get my yard cleaned up, Carol Potter said. Ive been here 32 years. Going through the trailer is like going through someones stuff after they died.
She is 58, her husband is 59. They arent sure if they will stay along North Fork. We are too old to sign up for a loan (for rebuilding), she said.
Reflecting on what her small community has endured in the six weeks since the flood, she said: These people dont want money. They want their homes.