Times in this small town, nestled in a wooded valley of the Allegheny Mountains, have been hard for a long time -- long before the waters of the Black Fork River rose almost 15 feet over their banks last Monday night.

Unemployment hovered at 20 percent, and townspeople say it seems like the young people kept drifting off one by one. Still, residents were reluctant to give up on this tightly knit community of 3,000 and its quiet shady streets.

"I was born and raised here. I left to find work but I came back . . . because this is the most beautiful place I know," said Danny Johnson.

The Parsons that Johnson remembers is gone, destroyed by the flood waters.

Homes and businesses were swept down the river. Officials expect that nearly 100 other houses will have to be bulldozed over. Only three businesses were open today, the first day that guardsmen allowed people to reenter the town.

Phone and electrical service remains out in many areas. Schools are closed and may not open for several weeks.

In Tucker County, for which Parsons is the county seat, four people are dead and eight are still missing, emergency officials said. More than 900 families in the county of 8,000 persons have been evacuated from their homes.

"The town that was here before is basically wiped out. We're not like other West Virginia cities where only a section of town was damaged. We lost everything," said Richard Goldman of the Tucker County Coalition for Economic Development.

In the midst of the devastation, all conversations centered around the same question: Can Parsons rebuild?

"We've been debating whether to stay since Monday," said Johnson's wife Beatrice outside the Parsons footwear factory, where they both worked until she was laid off this year. "He says we're staying and I say we're going . . . . Tucker County was in bad shape before, but at least we had a little hope, at least the buildings were standing."

"I hate to see it and I hate to say it, but the place will never be the same," said Larry Lahman standing outside his Pennsylvania Avenue house, which had collapsed into the basement.

Mayor John Gribble would have no part in the defeatism. "Parsons has been here a long time, and it is going to continue to be here. We will rebuild it better than it was before," said the mayor, his voice rising sharply, despite his exhaustion.

But Goldman -- who happened," said Linda Lahman. "We went to put gas in the truck so we could evacuate. When we returned 10 minutes later, the road had washed over.

"Pennsylvania Avenue used to be the nicest street," recalled Lahman. "It was lined with trees. In the summer we had a porch we could sit on and we could see a big red house across the street and a white house over there. We had a garden off to the side."

Now, the neighbors' houses have been washed away, and in all directions lie mounds of mud and debris.

Even though there was little or nothing left to salvage, many townspeople took solace simply in the activity of cleaning up. "We won't be able to get much out. It'd be junk anyway, but it's better than nothing," said Ed Swartz as a friend with a bulldozer helped him recover an overturned truck and other property outside Swartz's Autoparts.

Across the river, restaurant owner Ellie Huffmann was surveying one of the less-damaged storefronts for its potential as a makeshift tavern until her severely damaged restaurant is reopened.

"This place was vacant before the flood, so the inside isn't messed up too bad," Huffmann said. "I need to open up something soon so the guys will have a place to drink and loaf."

Officials hope that this sort of neighborly spirit will push the town to resurgence. "This town functions like small towns did 30 years ago. People are kind and supportive. They have a sense of right and wrong," said Goldman. "I've lived here two years, and more people stop and say hello to me on the street than after 25 years in Washington."

But said Linda Lahman, that feeling may be hard to resurrect: "Sometimes you just feel like washing away with everything else."