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“The Whole Family Was Swept Away”

Ronnie Scott lost his wife and neighbors in 2016’s deadly flash floods. Now he urges others to take environmental issues seriously.

Ty Wright/Getty Images
A photo from 2016 shows a trailer washed away by a flash flood in Elkview, West Virginia.

The 2016 West Virginia flood—considered a 1,000-year natural event with a 0.1 percent probability of happening in any given year—ravaged Greenbrier County on June 23 that year. Torrential rain and thunder, rising 10 to 12 inches in 12 hours, turned quiet creeks into flash floods that ran down steep hills, alleyways, and streets, washing away roads, houses, and entire neighborhoods. Twenty-three people lost their lives.   

“I heard the thunder and lightning all day,” said Ronnie Scott, a resident of White Sulphur Springs in Greenbrier Valley. After watching a high school basketball game while it rained outside, he returned to the house he built for his family. His wife, Belinda, was cooking supper as he took a cold drink from the fridge and went out to the porch. 

In the time it had taken him to park the car and get that drink, “the creek had risen like 15 feet,” he said. “I told Belinda to take her car and leave the house immediately.” Scott, in the meantime, tried to pull his camper up on the nearby hill to safety.

“The water was full across my street,” he recalled. “Fences, trees, walls, and other debris were flooding down the creek. I started beating doors, screaming and howling to get neighbors to come out and go up on the hill. I got five of my neighbors out.” One neighbor, a dad, refused to leave. “Soon the water was going through their windows. The whole family was swept away. The rescuers did not find their 14-year-old girl’s body until two months later.”   

Unbeknownst to Scott, Belinda had gone back to the house to rescue their dog and cat while he helped their neighbors. She was trapped.

“I told her over the phone to take a crowbar and a hammer, break the fence, and go to the porch,” Scott said. “I told her, ‘When the rescue comes, I can pull the boat up.’ Last thing she said to me was that she smelled gas.”

The gas line under Scott’s house had broken when another house washed down the creek. “Our house filled up with gas, the gas explosion blew it up and threw my wife and cat into a tree,” he said. “They ended up hanging in that tree for the next four and half hours.” 

Belinda died a week later at the hospital from the explosion burns on her body. That tree still stands tall on Scott’s land, now part of Brad Paisley Community Park, as a memorial dedicated to Belinda and all the other flood victims. The dog and cat she had tried to save didn’t survive either. “She was my angel,” Scott says. “I love her, I miss her.” 

At first, Scott wanted to give up on White Sulphur Springs, where he was born 65 years ago and where he has lived all his life. “Some people rebuilt by the creek,” he said. “New coding was set into effect after the floods. Houses have to be two feet above the water line. If I had to sleep next to a creek again, I could never do that.” He got an offer to live in the city’s new flood-victim housing, called City of Hope. “I live there now, up on the hill. I feel safe.”     

Scott is still troubled by memories—not just of his wife, but of how close he came to losing others as well. “My son, his wife, and their kids were able to escape to the attic, when their house flooded,” he said. “My son was paddling the water away with his hands to keep the family safe.”

Two months after the tragedy, Scott turned to religion. “I got baptized, and I knew why God was talking to me and why he sought me out.” He also took solace from the memorial, where he visits often to be with Belinda, and where the residents can gather to grieve the lost ones and dream for a better future.

After the flood, Scott acquired a farmland property in Monroe County, about 30 miles from West Sulphur Springs. There, he feels like he can get away, and he plans to install solar power.

Ironically, since the floods, Scott has witnessed drought and rapidly changing temperatures across the farmland. “Springs and rivers have dried up, wells are dry,” he said. “We have the worst drought in West Virginia since the 1940s. The governor issued a warning for not using water for personal use. No water for lawns, washing automobiles, or filling swimming pools. You are in real trouble there.”

Scott also worries about the many trees companies in the area have cut down to build quarries. Scott loves trees and resents the damage mining has caused to the environment. “Now it is just dust and dirt, and nothing will grow there,” Scott said. “You can see that every time you go through the coalfields. They cut the trees—the white oak trees and the red oak trees. I don’t think people use coal like they used to. Our governor is big on coal mining. He thinks that coal can come back, but I have always used wood to heat my house. After every storm, I went out to get deadwood and used it. I never cut a tree.”

In his desire to create a healthier environment and future for all, Scott drives his wife’s old car as little as possible. He also struggles with recent business developments in his area—cutting oak trees for whiskey barrel manufacturing. 

“I tell everybody that material stuff doesn’t mean anything,” Scott says. “I worked very hard all my life and had anything I wanted. I had more than I needed. Now if I buy something, it’s something I’m really going to use. Otherwise, I don’t buy it.”

Scott also considers it his mission to share his family’s story with everyone who is willing to listen.

“I tell everybody, you know? We are going to have to educate people to change their ways of living, to make a change because of the climate and how we treat each other,” Scott said. “Nature will take its course, and the trees will grow back, but it will take time. That’s why we have to do our part now.”

Voices From the Future is a series from the front lines of climate change and extreme weather in collaboration with the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory at Arizona State University.