When the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River rumbled out of Hopeville Canyon the evening of Nov. 4, no one in this little riverside town knew what was coming.
By nightfall the brown water had breached the banks, and by midnight the river was rampaging down Route 28 as if the road, which parallels the river, were a spillway rather than a highway. The river snatched Irk's Tavern off its foundations and bore it away, and it carried off the Exxon station and a dozen other little dwellings and buildings on the river side of 28, where nothing exists anymore. Then it went to work on the mountain side of the road.
Carolyn Evans watched it come up the steps in front of her ramshackle cabin, tucked against the mountain, and she watched the chaos in midstream.
"People was hollering," she said. "Houses was going by. I saw a man go by on a mattress. Then he went down. Drowned, he did. And then another man came by on a tree. He was jumping from one tree to another. When one tree went down, he jumped to another one. Then he went out of sight, too.
"There was nothing we could do. People crying for help and we couldn't help 'em. We couldn't get out the front door because the river was there and we couldn't get out the back for the mud slides. It was something, I tell you. Like someone declared war."
The war was brief and devastating. By the following afternoon the flood had receded. But today, nearly a month after sudden disaster struck Cabins and Upper Cabins, Petersburg, Moorefield, Onego, Circleville and the other little encampments along the streams that wind up as Washington's river, things are in a muddy ruin.
Hundreds of houses, cabins and house trailers lie ravaged along the river banks, walls torn away, beams exposed, floors still oozing mud. The worst off are marked with crude, spray-painted numbers, condemnation signs for the wrecking crews still to come.
Valley pastures are littered with rock rubble through which cows amble, confused; farm equipment lies in battered lumps in the bottomland, and at the mouths of wild canyons such as Hopeville and Smoke Hole, sand and mud several feet deep coat what once was rich farm country, as far you can see.
The South Branch of the Potomac roared out of the Smoke Hole into Petersburg that night, and John Zimmerer watched the water creeping into his yard and then into his five-bedroom house, which is when he and his wife Arvella took their leave to higher ground.
He'd seen water in the yard before, maybe a couple times each spring, but this water kept coming, Zimmerer said, making noise like the ocean waves. When it was eight feet deep in the house, something evidently short-circuited and the place burned. What didn't burn was washed away. Only the foundation and a satellite TV dish remain.
Zimmerer lost his house, his business, his car and his clothes, but not his cheerful goodwill. "These britches are a little short," he said last week, hitching up some hand-me-down jeans as he outlined his rebuilding plans, "but they do the job."
Even the Zimmerers, who through Eagle's Nest Outfitters make their living running caneoing, backpacking and fishing trips and know the river's foibles, were taken by surprise. "We never had a warning," said Arvella Zimmerer.
In Moorefield, sporting goods dealer Doug Kimball watched the water rising in the street and decided to stay after closing, even though he'd heard no warning of a flood and had built his store to withstand waters as high as the infamous flood of '49.
When the water was three feet up his glass front doors and pouring in the cracks, he told his son it was time to go. When they returned the next afternoon there was a foot of mud on the floor and entire showcases had washed out through breached walls. An adjoining apartment building had been swallowed up by a sinkhole.
"We had it coming both ways," said Kimball. "The South Branch was flooding us on one side and the South Fork on the other. A lot of people had nowhere to go." He said a woman spent the night clutching a gasoline pump outside his building, her daughter tied to her waist, before rescue workers snatched them to safety.
There are some tales of heroism from the flood, which claimed at least 38 lives in West Virginia and may have done $1 billion in damages, and many more tales of community spirit in the bid to recoup losses. But mostly there are tales of helplessness.
For folks who use this region's rivers for camping, canoeing, rafting, hiking, hunting, swimming and tubing, these tales are object lessons in the terrible power of moving water.
"It was just a roar," said Mary C. Ours of Upper Cabins. Her stone house lies near the mouth of Hopeville Canyon, where in the spring Washington paddlers enjoy the first whitewater races of the season. The force of water gushing out of the constricted Hopeville passage was so great that stones the size of basketballs were suspended in the turbulence. "The rocks were just a-rolling like thunder," she said.
Her house was high enough to escape the flood, but within sight lay a meadow where several small camps had been built, Ours said. As the water rose, people in the camps sought shelter in a large house in the meadow called the Smith House.
Before the flood peaked at 2:30 a.m., Ours said, she looked downstream to the Smith House and saw something on the roof. "It was someone waving a light," she said matter of factly. "Up and down it dipped, and then out it went, and that was someone drowning." Twelve people were in the house, Ours later learned, and all but one drowned.
Today, when you look at these places where people built homes and businesses, you wonder why they did it. The power of the river is so evident now, where it has torn buildings from their foundations, carried off oak trees, dumped tons of rocks and boulders and sand and mud, scoured the banks clean of life.
Yet those who know rivers also know that three months ago these were among the most pleasant places in West Virginia, where moonlight played on dappled water and the current murmured along grassy shores.
Who knew then that four days of rain in wild Pendleton County could turn the canyons into giant firehoses, spewing pressurized water so forceful it carried off rocks and cars and mud and houses?
"People have short memories," said Pat Munoz of the American Rivers Conservation Council.
Too true. On the shattered banks of the North Fork, the South Branch, the South Fork, the Cheat, the folks are already rebuilding, right in the rubble.