During the last week of October 1985, weak winds over the United States, south of 40 degrees latitude, allowed a late-season tropical storm named Juan to meander along the Gulf of Mexico coast. On Thursday, October 31, the weakening Juan moved north, leaving abundant moisture over the Southeast.
On Sunday, November 3, another storm formed in southeastern Georgia. This new storm was now in position to tap the moisture left in the atmosphere by Juan. Occasional rain fell over West Virginia on November 3. By the predawn on Monday, November 4, a large area of rain began to form from western North Carolina north to southern West Virginia. This rain continued to strengthen while shifting northeast toward Elkins and Petersburg by late morning. The storm center moved slowly north, reaching the Lynchburg, Virginia, vicinity by nightfall. The circulation around the storm pulled additional moisture from the Atlantic coast, and the winds blowing up the eastern slopes of the Appalachians augmented rain totals. These factors kept the heavy rains falling into Monday night. Rainfall rates of three to six inches in 12 hours were observed over the headwaters of the Potomac, Greenbrier, and Little Kanawha rivers. These same rainfall rates affected an even larger percentage of the Cheat, Tygart Valley, and West Fork river basins.
In response to the rain, many head-water rivers rose rapidly with the onset of darkness that Monday evening. Severe flooding took place overnight. After midnight, the rain became lighter, but by then, fatal flooding was under way. The 24-hour rainfall amounts, ending near dawn on Tuesday, November 5, were four to eight inches from the Covington and Roanoke area of Virginia northward, to include the area from Clarksburg to Petersburg in West Virginia. The low clouds and light rain that fell during the day on November 5 did not affect river crest heights, but did hamper rescue operations from the air.
The Cheat and Greenbrier rivers crested at record levels. Record water heights were also seen on portions of the Tygart Valley, Little Kanawha, and West Fork rivers, and on the North and South Branches of the Potomac. At Parsons, the Cheat River crested 10 feet above flood stage and four feet higher than the previous record from July 1888. At Glenville, the Little Kanawha River crested 13 feet above flood stage and about two feet higher than the March 1967 flood. At Philippi, the Tygart Valley River crested nearly 15 feet above flood stage and around four feet higher than the previous record stage. At Moorefield, the South Branch of the Potomac River crested about 10 feet above flood stage and nearly four feet higher than June 1949, the previous record.
In West Virginia, 47 people were killed in the flood of 1985. Pendleton and Grant counties had the most fatalities. Towns such as Parsons, Rowlesburg, Philippi, Marlinton, Glenville, Petersburg, and Moorefield were severely damaged. The upper James and Roanoke rivers in neighboring Virginia also had fatal record flooding. In the aftermath of this flood, cleanup and recovery efforts were greatly aided by an unusually mild November.
This Article was written by Kenneth T. Batty
The Flood of November 4-5, 1985, in Tucker, Preston, Grant and Hardy Counties. Parsons: McClain, 1985.
Killing Waters: The Great Flood of 1985. Terra Alta: Cheat River Pub., 1985.
Newmark, Todd. Looking Back Ten Years Later: The Flood of 1985. Goldenseal, (Fall 1995).