Every Time It Rains
By Harold L. Cremeans
Former Director Of Engineering And Chief Engineer
Harvit Broadcasting Corporation
1971 - 1980
© 2014 HLC
Boom Or Bust
We were a handful of people trying to do the right thing and not panic anyone. But I am getting ahead of myself. Williamson in the late seventies was a boom town. Coal prices (and thus work) would cycle up and down over the years and they had been up for some time. Not to mention the miners had some of their best contracts ever at the time. Harvit Broadcasting was the owner of WBTH-AM and had just won the second longest running Federal Communications Commission FM case in history. As the engineer, I was literally handed a fifteen year old orange engineering folder and told "build it". It, was the new FM on 96.5 at 50,000 watts for Williamson. I had been married two years and the wife was seven months pregnant with our first child as March was ending. As usual the weather went into rain mode as spring neared. Each year it would rain a lot, the Tug river would come up and go down. Roads would get blocked and a few would have to move away from their riverfront homes. The minor flooding was more of an inconvenience than any thing else.
Bob Hubbard, a local businessman and ameteur meterologist, had friends and relatives that lived near the Tug fork for its entire length. He was quite good at predicting how high the river would get. So good in fact, the National Weather Service was having a problem with him. We would broadcast his predictions along with what the NWS would say and we wouldn't stop. The NWS didn't like this but everyone would point out to them he was closer to right than they were 100% of the time! There was even an arguement that Williamson's flood stage had changed (according to Bob) for the river had sediment built up. The NWS would have none of this!
There was a "flood wall" in Williamson then. I was told it was built a few inches higher than the highest fifty year flood. In some places it was a sensational two feet high! Looked like a joke but it had kept the mighty Tug out of town. Confidence was high it would do so again this year. The local Chamber of Commerce had helped fund the installation of an NWS "Weather Wire" at our studios. This was a teletype link that spat out forecasts, river stages and expected river crests. Some of the reports came from Charleston, some from Washington, DC. It was intended to help us in time of crisis.
The weekend prior to the disaster, my wife and I decided to visit my parents in Barboursville and go see a movie in Huntington. Little did I know we would not get to see the movie much past the intro, for I was paged out of the Keith Albe by our new Program Director. The river was rising and he didn't know what to say on the air. He was an arrogant guy Bob Harvit had brought in from New York. He had a huge communication problem with people. He had only been at work a couple of months and knew nothing of our "Emergency Proceedures". The rise wasn't much. Not enough to cause a problem this time....but this would change very soon.
And thus the stage for this story is set.
So it rained....
And It Begins
Then it rained, and rained, and rained. It rained hard on and off for several days. On Sunday, April 3rd, the first glimpse of what was to come....a long term forecast of up to five inches of rain! It took just 2 inches of rain across the valley to cause a significant problem. So there it was, trouble ahead but it had to rain more first. For several years we had been spared a major flood. In the Tug Valley, if it cloud bursts on one side of the mountain it floods Pikeville, Kentucky. On the other it floods Williamson or even Logan. Such is the topography. With the Charleston and Lexington radars unable to 'see' into the area, rainfall predictions were a guess at best. Everyone was just sick of rain on a ho, hum Sunday in April.
Monday morning April 4th. The rain has been heavy overnight and is continuing. We at the radio station were worried. Bob Hubbard calls and says he's "lining up" his "people" and it's not looking good. By noon our staff is considering who will spend the night at the station. Typically we would answer phones and just pass on crest predictions and current river levels on the air. By 2 PM the latest from Hubbard was a rapid rise up river but he didn't know what it meant. 3 Pm and Hubbard calls for Bob Harvit and will talk to no one else. A few minutes later a very shocked Harvit calls us together and tells us of the first reports of mobile homes and houses crashing into bridges in Ieager at Big Creek. This is not good news! Then, in rapid succession, river rise reports in town of 6 inches an hour....then 8....10....12+....something is very wrong here! At 6 PM Bob calls another meeting and everything he can find out has the river levels off the charts! At 7 PM we will go into emergency operation and the FCC will be contacted for permission to run full power overnight (a requirement back then). After the meeting I went home.
Home was just up second avenue for we lived at the end of town in an apartment over the liquor store. For the first time I noted how the building was built as I went in the door. I explained the situation to the wife and suggested she should come to the station to "ride this out". She was tired and sleepy (being eight monts pregnant) and didn't want to. "Why don't you just stay home and let someone else do this?" she asked. "Well, it's my job and I don't want them to scare people to death" was my reply. Part of my job was "Director Of Government Relations and Emergency Operations". Sounds cool, right? Well if you know radio then you know the bigger the title, the less the money and the more you have to do. All it meant was I did the license renewals and edited what went on the air when it flooded. Something I had done for several years. Also we were a defacto training station for new jocks. The school In Cincinnati was where we would get our announcers when not enough locals wanted to do it. The young man who agreed to stay overnight was such a person. I gave the wife a kiss and went off to a night of what I thought would be answering telephones. The typical number of calls was (by C&P count) 2,100 calls per flood day on two lines!
Back to the station. At 6:45 I went into the control room and pulled all of the 'hard rock' records. After 7 we normally played for the high school kids. I also told the jock that if he answered the phone, "take down the info and give it to me". We've been pranked too many times to put things straight on the air! He understood and collectively we thought we were ready for just another long night. At 7 PM I made the announcement "At this time WBTH suspends regular operations to bring you emergency information on our flooding conditions". No big deal for it certainly wasn't the first time I had done this. On the air we would give all the information we had and play a record. If we played two in a row, the jock would give the expected crest in-between.
My normal position for flood duty was in the production room right behind the control room.You had a great view of the jock's back! There I would help answere the phones and write down and then record the latest info so the jock could play it back while he answered the phones too. Everyone had to answere the phones except Bob Harvit. He would be bussy making calls. This night would be no different than any other flood night of the past. We were ready.
There are moments in our lives that we never forget even though we may want to. An instant in time forever frozen and replayed again and again. For this then 27 year old father to be, April 4th, 1977, 7:18 PM is that moment....
It had been just over five years since the slag dam collaspe on Buffalo Creek in Logan County, so when it would rain enough to raise the river, the rumors would start. A dam had broken up the Tug! Every year it was the same. I had lost relatives in that incident, so I knew how hurtful such rumors were. We never broadcast such a rumor....ever! We also had one advertiser who, each flood, would try to get us to run an ad for "Baby Easter Ducks". He was an elderly man and each year we would respectfully decline.
I was doing the usual in the production room when Harvit transfered a Hubbard call to me. Harvit sounded upset, nervous even. I wondered what the story was with Hubbard. So I Greeted "Hi Bob, what's the latest?" Hubbard was clearly upset too. He said to my supprise, "Let me tell you a story". I thought OK, here comes a joke! "There was a man who went out to feed his animals this morning. He had a five gallon bucket. He finished and forgot the empty bucket outside near the fence. He remembered the bucket and went to get it this afternoon. The bucket was overflowing!" "OK", I said, "So it rained a lot". "That bucket had a surface area of about thirty inches and was fifteen inches tall", he continued. "And I have reports of that kind of rain from all around the Big Creek area. This is why my contacts are gone!" "What do you mean all gone?", I asked. "They have all fled their homes and stores! My Trooper friend has confirmed the Big Creek stories....this is going to be the worst flood we have ever seen!" (long silence) Bob was shouting now, something was happening behind him. "WE HAVE MOVED ALL WE CAN HERE....I WON'T BE CALLING AGAIN....MATEWAN IS LOST.... RECORD FLOODING....RECORD FLOODING....GOOD LUCK TO YOU!!" click
Record flooding....stores true....Matewan lost....WHAT?
It took a minute or to to sink in. Then came the tears. I cried so hard I couldn't breathe. Oh God! What to do? What to do? Calm down, I thought. You have to get this out and NOW! The call had ended at 7:18 PM, it was now 7:25. Funny how you remember such things in detail. I got up and turned off the production room light so the jock couldn't see the tears and then called him on the intercom. "When this song ends, hit the tones and then give it to me!", were the instructions. The tones went off and he pointed to me. With broken voice I said something like: "Record flooding on the Tug River! Get away from the river, move to higher ground! Record flooding! Move your cars, your family, your animals to higher ground now! Move to a safer place....move to higher ground now! Dont run, don't panic, just get to higher ground now! We don't know where this will go! Record flooding on the Tug River is happening now!" I don't remember how long I kept it up. The jock wrote most of it down and began repeating it on air. Yes, we did play music and after each song gave the warning and and information we had. It was all in an effort not to cause a "mad rush" out of town and get someone killed in the process. (This would later be used against us in a court of law)
The wife, the wife, I must tell the wife! My call was met with the same sleepy BS as before. Well I thought, she is in a protective upstairs apartment. If it floods that much, I'll sent a rescue after her. IF IT FLOODS THAT MUCH!? Looking back, I was clearly in shock and denial. There was no 'if, this was going to happen! The next call was to city hall. The Mayor wasn't there and no one had any information. Then I called Mingo County Emergency Services. "No, the director isn't here, he's in Gilbert. You know the Guyan IS flooding!" said the gal on the phone. Sorry to say I wasn't very nice at that point. Who to call next? Hey! I have the State Emergency Services Number, I'll call them for help! Suprise! Suprise! The director answers the phone! I tell him of the on going and impending disaster on the Tug....can he help? "I have no information on that situation. Could you repeat that?" I was flabergasted! But I repeated the dire warning and any information I had. (This did come back to haunt him.)
Harvit's office was in the back of the building. His office had a big window looking over the alley and the out of place little white house across the way. I went in and explained the "no information....no help" situation to him. How I couldn't get anyone in power interested in what was happening and couldn't even find the Mayor. "Well, give me your phone numbers and facts. The Mayor will be here shortly" was his response. Then I could hear car horns blasting out back. The back stairs were in front and to the right of his office, so I went down to see what the noise was about. There was a line of cars as far as you could see up first avenue along the flood wall! Here the wall was under three feet high and the water was lapping over already! Everyone wanted to see the river up close. Bad idea! We needed to get this stopped! I went back upstairs and called the police station. The chief wasn't there, he was out trying to control/disuade the traffic on first avenue! So....we made the announcement on the air: "Please, if you are driving downtown to see the water, GO HOME! When the flood wall is breached, you will be trapped here!" Believe it or not, they listened!
It was then the Mayor arrived....
I was walking out of the news room when there, sitting in a chair against the wall in the reception area, sat Mayor Taylor. Now the good Mayor was an older man and a quite plesant person. I approached him and asked rather bluntly, "Are there any plans to evacuate Williamson?". With downcast eyes he simply said "No". A group of people came out front with Harvit and surrounded the man, so I went on about my business. A town full of people in cars with no plan to get them or anyone else out. What next?
Time for a quick check on the "Weather Wire"! You remember. That tele-type direct from NOAA in time of weather emergency. They had ran a river forecast earlier but it was far lower than the last report from Hubbard (made well before the "record flooding" statement.) What would they be sending now? Care to guess? Weather forecasts for Washington, DC and vicinity! Just what we needed. The group out front broke up and Harvit called us together again. "It's getting late and at two feet an hour the water will be in town soon. If you need to leave, go now", he said. We stayed. I decided to call the state guy again to see if he had any updated information. When I asked for the latest, he began to read back exactly what I told him hours earlier. A lot of help that was. Then I saw someone bound up the stairs and into the back. "This can't be good", I thought. I rushed back to Harvit's office and a man in boots with a flashlight was telling him and secretary Brenda; "The water is at the top of the floodwall and there is only one way out. Armor crossing. If you don't leave now, you are stuck here." Brenda asked "What about the people in the second floor apartments in town?" The man replied "Don't know. I'm just trying the doors that are unlocked". I knew what we all were thinking and that was, "What the hell are we doing?" The man in boots we would see again.
And so our on air efforts continued for what seemed like a very long time. Calls for boat rescues, reports of damage, requests for information on relatives whereabouts. We didn't have time to think about it! Then man in boots reappeared. "The water is over the wall !! It's commin' in waves over the top. The Police Chief and the Fire Chief are down on third (avenue) trying to get people out of the bars! It's over the wall!!" It was 1 AM, April 5th. The announcement I put on air went something like, "The river has topped the floodwall! If you are in downtown Williamson get out now! The river is pouring into downtown, get out now!" It was in just a few minutes when the phone slowed, that my thoughts turned again to my wife. I called again and got the same sleepy response. Oh well. But it worried me. So I told everyone "I'll be right back"! No truer words were ever spoken, for as I reached the downstairs door, water helped me open it. As I stepped out on the sidewalk I could not see the curb. Looking up third avenue, I could see a wave breaking at the corner power pole in front of the courthouse. It was too late to go after her now.
Back upstairs and pandemonium. Numerous calls for boats and rescue. "Put them on one sheet by the time the call came in and a name, if any. That way we can strike them off if we're told they've responded", I said. So many calls for help! It was almost 2 AM with Williamson flooding, so I decided to call the State emergency Service director one more time. We need help and we need it now! Again the director answers the phone. He's repeating the same thing....again! I began to argue. "That's what I told you hours ago! Am I your only contact? Hello? Hello? The phone is dead. Yes DEAD! It is exactly 2 AM.
We all gathered in the control room. No phones, what do we do now? The guy in the boots come up the stairs this time saying "It's now or never"! But we stayed. We didn't know what to do next so we all just wondered off. But then I remembered! I had just bought a portable CB and had left it in Engineering! But it takes 12 volts DC and I had no adapter. I went back and mentioned it to Harvit who replied, "How about some batteries?" "What batteries!", I remarked. Well....we had a Christmas promotion where we gave away batteries for your toy. Just bring the toy by the station. Only one large carton had been used. There was another! This was great! I rigged up enough 'D' batteries to operate the CB and made a long wire antenna. We had outside contact again and someone, we never knew who, played dispatcher to us. We were doin' rescue calls again! And there were many.
The CB calls slowed again and I went back to Harvit's office. We were talking about what would happen next when Brenda came in shouting "There's a man out there!!" We all looked out Harvit's big window and there he was, clinging to the large phone lines attached to our building with one arm over the cables. It was the old man from the little white house out back! Harvit said "Call for a boat!" Brenda ran to tell the jock. "He's coming our way, mabe we can get to him", I said to Bob. We both went toward the back stairs. Now the stairs was where we stored all the tele-type paper. Now wet, it all turned to a floating 'mesh'. I went down the stairs into the water, which was nearly chest deep, parting the foot thick paper as I went. When I got to the back door I couldn't open it. I first thought it was the water pressure, but it was the paper. I began trying to push the paper into a heap when Harvit started into the water. 'Click' and the backdoor began to open! It wasn't quite open all the way when we heard "We got him! we got him!" A boat had responded to our on air call and rescued the man. Back upstairs, soaked and cold. All the chairs in the station were fabric so we couldn't sit down wet. So secretary or not, off went the pants to dry. We did have to explain to the jock why we were running around in our underwear!
The CB calls had stopped. It was early morning when we heard a report a pregnant woman had been boated out of town. Was it my wife? No one had a name.
Daylight and the CB fired up again. Mostly requests for information on individuals which we passed along on air. At that time there were FCC rules that prohibited direct personal communications by a broadcast station. This was one time we paid no attention to the rules. A little later, what we all had feared would happen, happened. The power went out! We were supprised it had stayed on all night, but now it was gone. There is nothing, nothing, deader than a silent radio studio! Some took naps. I just worried about my wife and the future.
Then there was a noise. footsteps on the roof! Then more. At one time it sounded like a herd of cattle! Who were they and where did they think they were going? Looters? We hoped not for none of us had a wheapon. But no, not loters. It was the railroaders from the Mountaineer Hotel! The hotel was a layover for the N & W, but what were they doing on the roof? The only way on to the roof next door was thru a tiny window in the control room. Even though our air-conditioners were out there, there was no door.Some of us squeezed out to see what was going on. One of the guys had a plan to get to the water on the King's awning with a former mop handle. Why? Because the windows had broken out of the A & P up the street and bags of food were floating by! Soon enough, bags of chips, candy, etc. were tossed up to waiting hands. This went on until the food stopped and the oil came. The oil was from the tanks at the rail yard and was now coating the water all over town. Fortunately it was diesel and not gasoline. There were fires in town later in the day, but the diesel did not ignite.
We were just back inside when we heard shouting outside on the roof. "Hey! Look at this! Look!" Back out we went and there, trying to keep it's head above water, was a huge hog! Poor thing. Everyone agreed it would drown. Sympathy for a hog while homes were crashing against the Harvey street bridge behind us, not to be seen again. Off and on that day we went out and watched everything from that hog, to huge tanks, to cars and mobile homes float down the street. This from a river that would run up and down normaly in a few hours. The river crept up all day long. Unbelieveable! Perhaps a dam did break!? I suppose we could have used the CB and called for a boat to take us out, but we didn't. Shock, disbelief and a numbness like the world had ended, and exhaustion I guess. We tried to settle in for a very long night. I used the batteries to rig up a hanging light in the news room and made a flashlight out of a coffee can for going to the toliet (we still had water pressure). Harvit came up with his 'goodie' stash he kept in his desk . Some cookies and candy bars. About once an hour I would take the can light and go down the stairs to see if the water had gone down any. What was causing this prolonged flood? At some point, about 10 PM I think, I came up stairs with the 'good news'! The water had droped about three inches! There were no screams of delight, only a sigh of relief that it would soon be over. We all fell asleep wondering..........
The quiet in the studios that night was deafening! No hum of the lights, no car horns, not even the sound of the river rushing down the street. Just an occasional 'bump' of a log or can against the building somewhere. It was the longest night I have ever spent. And, just when I thought I had gone to sleep...."Hello! Hello! Anybody up there?". I stumbled to the banister and yelled "YES!". I made my way down the stairs to find the man in boots holding the door open against the mud. "We're fine", I said. "Our needs are not immediate". He said he was going door to door up this side of the street looking for those who had been trapped upstairs. I asked him if he would/could check on my pregnant wife. "Gladly!", and off he went thru the thick mud up second avenue. I went upstairs to get everyone up but they had heard the commotion. "I'm going home!" I announced loudly. Everyone said they were too and Harvit added, "I'll find us some boots somewhere". We didn't set a time to come back. It was early Wednesday morning April 6th.
Out onto second avenue and I saw what I had only seen in movies. The street was filled with mud and debris, cars in all kinds of positions, piles of 'stuff' everywhere and all of it covered in mud. It looked like the set of a disaster movie....but it was all too real. The Harvey street 'dip' to third avenue was level with water. All the new stoplights had been destroyed and they had just been installed. I turned up the street to go home. What would I find. Had she been taken out by boat? Moved to some other location? Fighting back the tears, I started the trek up the street. When I got to the Lock, Stock & Barrel, I met the man in boots again. He smiled and said "She's fine! They had one heck of a party up there!". I thanked the man and then he asked, "What would it take to get the radio station back on?". "Power", I said. "We just need electricity". "I'll see what I can do!" he said, and proceeded on down the street. I never saw the man in boots again.
Up the stairs and down the hall to our apartment. I no more than got thru the door til it started. No amount of explaining or rational discussion would do. What should have been a happy moment turned into an all out arguement that was a festering sore for years to come. (I would find out much later the 'party' had been a 'pot' party one of the other tennents started. I always wondered if she 'partook' for our first son would developed problems later). When she calmed down some, I tried to explain what would happen next. The best place for her to be was at the radio station, if she could walk. It would be easied to get help for her there than if she stayed home. Reluctantly, she agreed to come to the station later. I'm guessing it was eight or nine that I headed back to the station. Hopefully, whoever was coming back would be there by noon.
Just When You Think....
The few people I've talked with from back then don't remember how cold it was on Tuesday, April 5th. There were even snow flurries when we were out on the roof that day. Then on the 6th, summer arrived in full force! And then came the stench! Once you've smelled it, you will never forget it. As the river mud dried it turned to dust, literally. That horrible smell would linger for years to come.
I was up front in the news room when I saw a tall man in glasses come up the stairs. I knew at once it was our Governor. He went straight to the back. To my suprise, he just as quickly came right back out, walked up to me, pointed and said "I fired him!". Hun? What? i didn't understand. He turned and went back to Harvit's office. Now Harvit hadn't 'run the board' (the audio control console) since his days in Beckley, so we showed him what switches to turn to get the Governor on the air. Harvit had the Governor sit in the news chair in the corner and did an interview. (A photo of this hung on the control room wall an in Harvit's office for many years thereafter) "Rocky" left quickly afterwards so I asked Harvit about what he had meant about firing someone. Harvit had no idea. He was in the dark too and couldn't understand why the Governor asked for me! Then someone spoke up saying, "He fired the Emergency Services Director after hearing you on the tapes!". Whoa! Gosh! I wasn't sure how to feel about that.
When the Guard arrives, they arrive!! In a cloud of stinking dust they poured into town and began taking their places. Friendly, but carrying rifles that were loaded and they made certain you knew it! My only 'bad' encounter with a Guardsman was that evening going home. There was a guard posted in front of the liquor store. I guess they were afraid someone would steel all the booze! Anyway, as I approached the stairway door the guy screamed "HALT!" and pointed his gun at me. At first I didn't understand the problem. Next he said "Where do you think you are going?" So I explained about the four appartments upstairs and the pregnant wife and he simply said "Proceed". I decided right then to speak first to any guard at a door so as not to have a gun pointed at me again. The strategy worked. For several days our evening meals were government USDA canned meat heated over a propane torch. It didn't taste all that bad.
Clean up was going to be long and dirty for everyone. Harvit had hired someone to clean the downstairs and the stairwell. He had remodeled the studios in the early 70s and put in vinyl covered wallboard. The flood mud came off easily and quickly. When I saw how well the walls were being cleaned, I ran to engineering and grabbed a screwdriver. The secretary said "What on earth are you doing?" "I have to mark this!", I shouted on my way down the stairs. I found a spot where the water line still existed and plunged the tool into the wall, making a half inch long hole in the vinyl. As I came up the stairs I said to the secretary, "Now no one will forget how high the water was here." To this day I believe there is a small plaque over that hole that says something like, "Flood Crest 52.56 Ft, April 5, 1977".
The day Senator Robert Byrd arrived, Nick Rayhall was with him. There were many businessmen and some others in the back when I wondered into the room. Harvit and our news director were there too. After some general conversation, Byrd spoke out quite loudly, "Gentlemen, there is nothing I can do for you!" The crowd went silent. What? What did he say? Murmurs all around and then Byrd quickly left the room. Now, sitting on a table next to Harvit's office door was a cassette recorder with "WBTH NEWS" in large letters on the top of it. Harvit looked at the recorder and then at me, as if to ask if it were on. I shook my head 'no'. But I guess Rayhall had seen the recorder but not our gestures and went running after Byrd. He brought Byrd back and the Senator said some things about SBA, somewhat appeasing the crowd. To this day I don't think Byrd or Rayhall knew there was no tape in the recorder. How different might it had been if there were. No one in that room will ever forget what our Senator said that day.
Though the worst disaster the area had ever known, everyone had 'kept their cool'. No one died as a direct result of the April, 1977 Tug River flood that I know of. It took what seemed like forever for Federal money to come in, but it did. Harvit had enough faith in the Tug Valley to continue the FM project we had just won and everyone continued to clean.
In a few weeks our first son was born, Lee. May 13th to be exact. We moved first to another apartment and then to a white house on first avenue next to the flood wall. In fact, that hog we saw float by on second avenue that day, landed on top of the porch roof of this house. The hog had survived! What a great omen for our new home I thought. But then came the day of the blood curdling screams from the bathroom. It was my wife screaming in terror at the brown water coming up in the bath tub! For her it was April 4th all over again I guess.
In a couple of months I talked with an Appalachian Power employee who told me there had ben an 'upper lever' decision that horrible night to keep the power to the South Williamson sub station on, "For it supplied WBTH and they were directing rescue!" That move had cost them a major transformer when the water went over it the next morning. We at the station had no idea this had happend. I also had spoken with a former employee of ours that was then working for the N & W railway. He told me a brakeman had see first hand the crashing of homes into the rail bridge that night on Big Creek in Ieager. When he got to Williamson, he went home and told no one about it. I had no idea why the man told me this nor did I know of any problem between the railroad and the radio station.
But just when you think it's all in the past, it comes back to haunt you and for reasons I could never have forseen. I would end up in Federal Court over a disaster!
Ford vs The N & W
In the weeks after the great flood, we at the station began hearing 'whispers' of mean things being said about the station's actions during the event. Eventually, it became talk of outright hatred of those of us that had worked the flood. We simply couldn't understand why. The Daily News included us in some of it's write-ups (something newspapers never do) and Harvit accepted the N.O.A.A. Public service Award for WBTH. But still the 'talk' continued about us at the station. It had 'quieted down' somewhat by the time I put WXCC on the air in October of 1978. (Another story in itself:"
Of Myth And Legend" The building of "Coal Country Radio")
After a second son (James) was born and some internal problems at the station, we moved to Northern Virginia. Bob Harvit had already moved to Florida.
It was in the early eighties when I began work for WXCC as a consultant. On my first visit I noticed all the 'flood tapes' the news director had so carefully put together were gone. I asked the new engineer what had happened to them and he said he had never seen them. I though nothing more of it. But the next year there came a knock on my Burke, Virginia door. It was a pair of lawyers. I was mortified! What in the world had I done? "You worked at WBTH during the flood, correct?", asked one. "Yes, I was one of several that worked thru the flood", I replied. "Well", he continued, "We represent the Ford Motor Company and Ford is suing the N & W Railway for running a $3,000,000 train load of new cars into the flood!" They could see I couldn't understand what they wanted with me and the other guy spoke up saying,"We have witnesses that state that the radio station gave no warnings or insufficient warnings!" How could anyone say that? The first man again spoke, "The N & W response is that the radio station played music all night and gave no warning of an impending disaster!" Oh! My God, that was it! This was the reason for all the 'hate talk' directed at the station and the employees! The N & W employees had been publicly 'trash talking' the station and it's employees thinking they were helping the company (and in my opinion felt there jobs were on the line if they didn't). I was PISSED! This bit of information made me mad! I went into what you have read as the first part of this story when the second man stopped me. "We want you to testify under oath on the stand about this." I had no interest in helping Ford but I would not let the station and the flood 'crew' be defamed like this! "I will testify as to what went on at the station. Whether or not it helps or not is another thing. The truth needs to be on the record!", Is what I told them. So there it was. All the animosity in a nutshell! All because of some flooded cars some insurance company didn't want to pay for. Unbelieveable!
I did not know how deep the hatred of station employees gone until I walked into the Federal Court House in Huntington, West Virginia. Clearly, the hallway was lined with N & W witnesses. You would have thought I was a murderer or something. The crowd was rather vocal toward me, but I said nothing back. On the stand I was asked a handfull of questions about what we did at the station that night of the flood and the questioning turned quickly to how fast the water was rising. "Too fast", I stated. "It was near two feet an hour most of the night." "Did you have beds at the station....or cots? Did you bring in extra food, batteries? Were you prepaired to stay a long time?", I was asked. "No, we were not prepaired for that large of a flood that night", I responded. And it was over! I was ushered out of court and went home to Virginia. Weeks later I learned Ford had lost for the jury declared it an "act of God"! Insterestingly there was no coverage in the local media. For such a large suit in a small town, you would have thought there would have been reporters all over the story....not a peep was ever said.
In the 90's I moved to Matewan to work for WVKM. Williamson had a huge new floodwall. Matewan was building one. No one talked of the 77 flood any more. When the river would rise, the Williamson stations didn't see it as an issue. Something I never thought could ever happen.
From reading this story you may think I dwell on this subject too much. The truth is, I only think about it.... Every Time It Rains.
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There is a 'final' story of WBTH and the flood and I guess, with interest fading away, it's time to tell it.
It speaks more to the character of the boss and owner Robert B. (Bob) Harvit. It was many weeks after the flood when NOAA did an awards gathering in Charleston. Many stations were given public service awards including WBTH. I knew of the event but thought nothing of it. It's what happens after such a disaster. The morning after the awards, Bob came into my little engineering 'closet'. At first I thought he was mad about something but soon found that wasn't it at all. He began with "It should have been you up there last night." I was stunned. Then he said "As they presented me the award I couldn't help thinking about you and what you did." He said, "This is yours" as he handed me the public service award for WBTH. "Take it home. I don't ever want to see it on the wall here!" I was speechless. Indeed, I kept it on a wall every place we lived after that. Then in 1991, one of my children knocked it off the wall and destroyed it.
That is why there was never an award for the flood on the wall at WBTH, only the plack over the hole I made in the wall marking the crest of the water.
For what it's worth, now you know.
I broke my promiss Bob, sorry.
copyright 2014 © Harold L. Cremeans
I have added this as the probable last addenum to the story. Thank you to the many who have read this over the years. I wrote it because I was in fear of forgetting it. Boy, was I wrong about that! To the perhaps thousands who have read it and the many who responded directly to me about it, my humble gratitude and a request....please don't let this disaster be forgotten.