Special report: ‘I’d never seen such disaster’

Published 8:48 am Friday, September 18, 2009

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series commemorating 10 years since Hurricane Floyd and the flooding that ravaged Franklin. On Sunday, we will focus on the rebirth the area continues to experience.

Days after Hurricane Floyd hit on Sept. 16, 1999, downtown Franklin looked like an extension of the Blackwater River.

Photographer Wendy Bryant had gone to The Tidewater News to begin her work for the day when someone there told her, “The whole dang town is flooded.”

“We all went down there, and I was like, ‘Oh, my God. I have never seen so much water,” she recalled. “It was unreal.”

During the flood, things were a blur, according to Taylor Williams, who had a private law practice in the city.

“You lost your communications,” Williams said. “You weren’t getting a newspaper anymore because they couldn’t get here. You didn’t have any landlines for telephones. And anybody that had a cell phone couldn’t get through; the traffic was huge.”

Several homes in the downtown area and further down Pretlow Street were uninhabitable, their residents displaced.

“The schools were closed down,” Williams said. “People had moved into the schools for shelter. Churches were holding prayer vigils. People were camping out to watch it through the night.”

Downtown business owners began to worry about how long the flood would last — and what they would find when the waters receded.

“For people who had businesses downtown, you walked down (to the water’s edge) and spent the day watching the water float by,” Williams said. “You would see (oil and propane) tanks float by. Nobody was allowed in it, and it didn’t seem like it was going away.”

He added, “For three or four days, that’s what you did every day. You just came down here and you looked and said to yourself, ‘What am I going to do?’”

Franklin Mayor Jim Councill couldn’t fathom what he saw when he looked at the city’s historic downtown area under several feet of water.

“I was sick to my stomach,” he said. “I’d never seen such disaster.”

Councill’s own downtown business flooded, but he said was more concerned about others.

“I knew I was going to lose everything,” he said. He said his job was to keep people from losing hope and trust.

“It was very disheartening to see so much suffering,” Councill said.

City government was greatly impacted. City Hall was under water and so were the city’s public safety buildings.

“I don’t think we could’ve prepared for that,” Councill said. “I don’t think anyone could’ve predicted that would’ve happened.”


Franklin Fire and Rescue Deputy Chief Mark Carr said the flooded Fire and Rescue headquarters on Main Street was abandoned and crews moved to the Hunterdale Fire Station.

Paul D. Camp Community College served as another “command center.”

Wallace Twigg, a regional coordinator for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, has vivid memories of coming to Franklin to help coordinate the state’s response to the flood.

“We had game wardens in boats in the city of Franklin,” he said.

When the fire department flooded, “they had to drive the trucks out of town on the railroad tracks.”

Carr said emergency crews had to rescue people stranded by the floodwaters.

“We rescued a few families off of the second floor, rooftops and whatnot in (the downtown) area and the Kingsdale area,” Carr said.

Compounding the problems caused by the flood, the GTE (now Verizon) main telephone switch on Second Avenue began to flood, threatening to cut off telephone communications.

“We actually had a fire engine down there to pump water out to keep communications up,” Carr said. However, as the water kept rising this effort proved futile, and landline telephone communications were soon cut off for a large swath of Western Tidewater.

Ten years ago, cell phones weren’t nearly as ubiquitous as they are today in Western Tidewater. And those who did have cell phones depended on fragile networks that couldn’t handle the increased call volume.

“It was so many people trying to use the cell service that it was useless; you couldn’t get a line,” Carr said. So officials turned to an older form of communication.

“The HAM (radio) operators were very beneficial to the response and need of the community during the flood,” he said.


While floodwaters in Franklin were centralized in the downtown area, Southampton County’s flooding was spread across the county, from the Zuni area, which reportedly lost 35 houses, down to Nottoway Shores and to Boykins and Branchville, according to Southampton County Administrator Michael Johnson.

Major routes into the county flooded, including routes 258, 58 and 460. The towns of Boykins and Branchville were cut off from the rest of the county by floodwaters.

Johnson said that HAM radio operators were able to keep information flowing between the county and the inaccessible towns. “So we knew everything was OK.”

Adding to the uneasiness, the National Weather Service didn’t have a forecast point on the Blackwater River, so officials had no idea what to expect.

According to the NWS, the Blackwater River crested at Burdette, north of Franklin, at 26 feet, breaking the previous record of 22 feet set in August 1940.

Russ Pace, the current director of public works, said city employees worked through the disaster to keep the city running.

“It seems like the simple day-to-day things are the things we drop the ball on. When a catastrophic event comes in, everybody pulls together. City employees sense an urgency,” he said.


Jeff Turner, who became the Blackwater/Nottoway riverkeeper a year after the flood, was worried about the families who lived near the river.

“All of the crossings were underwater,” he said. “You just had to figure it was bad downstream.”

Turner said that he unsuccessfully attempted to venture out on the Blackwater River during the flood.

“It freaked me out,” he said. “Everywhere I went there were Virginia National Guard troops with guns telling me to turn around.” Turner said that he understood the reasons for restricting boat travel along the river because it was a public safety issue. He also suspects that there may have been concerns about possible looting in the downtown area.


For downtown business owners, despair eventually gave way to determination.

“At some point you kick out of shock and say, ‘Well, let’s do something,’” Williams said. “The something we did was to begin to organize the downtown.”

Councill said downtown business owners were concerned about their goods and their stores. “We immediately had our first public meeting,” he said. City officials met with business owners and residents to keep them up-to-date.

Since there were no telephone communications, word of the meetings was passed by word of mouth and posters. More than 1,000 people showed up for the first meeting, according to Councill.

Block captains were selected and given the task of creating phone lists and contacting all of the other business owners on their block to notify them of upcoming meetings at St. Jude Catholic Church. The church would become the venue for months of meetings.

Williams, who was block captain for his block, said business owners also met with city officials.

“It was all crisis mode for them too,” Williams said. “After all, they had not been through this before either.”

Although some business owners, including Williams, were fortunate to find temporary sites to operate from, at least 22 businesses set up shop at a “downtown village” on Stewart Drive. There, the city set up 12-by-50-foot trailers and provided electricity, water and sewer service. The city also put in a driveway and gravel parking lot.

“I thought that was an amazing help from the city, and an amazing idea that came out of the meetings from businesses downtown,” Williams said.


Once the floodwaters had receded, authorities permitted limited access to downtown.

“The day we could come back, (access) was restricted to the business owners, property owners and the people that were there to help them,” Williams said. “Your people had to be with you so that we wouldn’t have a situation where onlookers and looters were coming into town.”

Williams, a member of the Hunterdale Ruritan Club, said the club had organized and had told him that they would help clean out his office. The attorney — donning boots, gloves and an air mask for protection from mold and other contaminants — got there first.

“I unlocked my door and went in and saw what I had,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. “I opened the doors up and let the place air out a little bit. And then I waited for my guys.”

Williams said between 20 and 25 Ruritan Club members helped him out that day. He estimated the pile of debris they pulled from his office to be 6 feet high and 15 feet long.

“They weren’t saving anything,” Williams said. “I was really emotional when they first got there, but then it just became like another Ruritan project. We started acting like Ruritans.”

It would be months before Williams would return to the First Avenue office. Father’s Day weekend 2000, he came back.

“Next to the birth of my children, and my daughter’s wedding, I don’t think anything has been as emotional for me as that,” Williams said. “That was a traumatic day. To this day, I cannot talk about that without tearing up. It’s been 10 years later, and I’ll bet I’ve told this story 25 times and it always affects me the same way.”


Many of the homes affected by the flood were unable to be entered for weeks, too. When Fannie Haley finally went back to her one-story ranch house on Broad Street, she couldn’t believe her eyes.

“I got hit real hard,” she said, shaking her head. “The house was a mess, just a mess. And it stunk really bad. My freezer had been knocked over. There was mold everywhere.”

Ten years later, a small photo album stuffed with pictures of the devastation is within easy reach at the same house.

“See that?” Haley said, pointing to the album. “It was a mess.”


David Rabil, owner of Fred’s Restaurant, was also stunned by what he found when he was first allowed to return.

“When we got here the first day, they let us come down for 15 minutes,” Rabil said. “I opened the door and almost broke down. Everything was upside down, greasy and nasty.”

“The weird thing was over in the dining room where I had heavy oak tables,” he said. “The water had evidently just lifted the tables up and put them right back down. They were still set with place settings and all of the condiments, just where they were when we left.”

“But the chairs were lighter,” he added. “They were flipped all upside down, thrown all over the place.”

On the bar side of Fred’s, Rabil saw a telling sign of the flood’s strength.

“Before the flood, the booths were all attached to the wall,” Rabil said. “But after the flood, some of them were actually pulled away.”

Rabil said the kitchen was a terrible sight, and the smell was even worse. Water had gotten into the restaurant’s fryers and forced grease out, making everything in the place greasy as well. Refrigerators, freezers and other equipment had been picked up and turned over.

Then there was the walk-in refrigerator and freezer.

“I can still smell it now,” Rabil said. “Water had gotten in it, and when you opened the doors all of this junk came out — eggs, chicken, fish. It had been sitting in there for days before we got back in here. It was hot and stinky and nasty.”

He chuckles. “That was just the first day.”

Rabil said the health department was very concerned about exposure to mold and other contaminants.

“They said we could come back in a couple days to start cleaning, but we could only be inside for 20 minutes at a time,” Rabil said. “I had some folks who wanted to come down and help me, and I said, ‘You don’t want to come down here now.’ Fortunately they came anyway. I had a couple of real good buddies.”


Janet Piersa, who owns Janet’s Gifts on South Street, said going back to her business after two weeks was “such a blur because we were so upset.”

The gift shop had shelf after shelf lined with bric-a-brac for sale, but the business lost even more because its owners had just received a large shipment of Christmas items and had been preparing to display that inventory.

“Everything in the store had shifted because the water went up to the ceiling. Things floated every which way.

“A lot of my merchandise was still in boxes,” she said, tearing up. “Later on we got bills for things we never even laid eyes on.”

Piersa said she wasn’t prepared for what she saw that day — or what she smelled.

“Everything was molded and stunk,” she said. “We had dead fish. We had animals. There were even (dead) kittens that had been clinging for life to the bushes out front. It was awful.”

Inside, oily water touched all parts of the store.

“Everything I worked for all those years was on a floor in a pile of wet, greasy mush,” Piersa said. “I started crying and I couldn’t stop. My whole life turned upside down.”

Today, the store is back, though Piersa doesn’t know if it will return to its former glory, which included a hair salon 10 years ago. Just as she did 10 years ago, Piersa is getting ready for the holiday sales rush.

“You never come back from something like this,” she said. “You just put one foot in front of the other and pray and pray and pray.”