On June 23, seven people were working at the USFWS hatchery in White Sulphur Springs, WV, when flood waters hit.
“It was raining hard that day, but we get high-water events around here. The hatchery has a berm to keep out high water at 100-year flood levels, so we weren’t too concerned at first,” says Tyler Hern, a fish biologist at the hatchery.
But it wasn’t long before Hern and the other staff realized that this was not a “normal” high-water event.
“First the culvert flooded, then we saw water coming in the raceways and realized this was serious,” continues Hern. “Water was just rising before our eyes. We went from normal to emergency in an hour.”
The staff decided to retreat to higher ground to a partner station on a nearby hill. But Hern, who lives at a house on the hatchery grounds, decided to go home.
“My house is about 200 yards away up on a hill and my girlfriend was home calling me – she was anxious about the water,” says Hern.
He started wading through the knee-deep water. Within twenty yards it was up to his belt, and in just a few minutes more it was up to his chest.
So Hern did what any fast-thinking, resourceful biologist would do – he climbed the nearest tree.
“I think I did a pretty good job of picking a tree,” he laughs. By then the water was about 6.5-7 feet deep and moving very fast, with debris floating in it. But Hern felt safely ensconced in the sturdy hemlock.
“I only got worried once the thunderstorms came. I was in the tallest tree and didn’t want to get struck by lightning,” he says. To be safe, he positioned himself on a branch in such a way that if he were knocked unconscious, he wouldn’t fall out of the tree into the water.
And then he waited. For about five-and-a-half hours, during which time his cell phone rang off the hook with staff and his girlfriend checking in on where he was. The noise of the rushing water was deafening. Finally, at about 8pm, Greenbrier County Rescue Squad showed up . They were able to drive a front-end loader through 6-7 feet of water and get Hern down safely.
Hern wasn’t the only one receiving rescue assistance. The devastating floods killed 23 people and damaged or destroyed 1,200 homes across Roane, Kanawaha and Greenbrier Counties. It’s estimated that 8-10 inches of rain fell in just a few hours, an amount considered to be a 1-in-1,000 year event.
In the days since the floods, Hern says the community has really banded together.
“I’ve never seen people come together better and faster than here. The support we’ve received and given each other is just great,” says Hern. “When things like this happen, everyone’s a West Virginian. Neighbors help neighbors.”
Restaurants in town have been cooking up free food for people and the Greenbrier Resort, which was supposed to host a PGA tour this week, is closed except to people who lost their homes. Help has poured in from all parts of the state and beyond. A crew from the USFWS regional office in Hadley, MA, went down to the hatchery to help conduct damage assessment and others are helping with the clean-up – shoveling mud and removing debris from the facility.
“It’s pretty devastating to look around the hatchery now,” says Hern. “It’s hard to see all our hard work get washed away.”
The hatchery sustained significant damage to buildings and equipment from the floods. Worse, all 45,000 rainbow trout were lost – 15,000 adults died and another 30,000 juveniles survived but had to be released due to contamination. The hatchery, which was established in 1902, has raised trout as part of the National Broodstock Program along with mussels and crayfish for recovery of rare species. One positive note is that all of the 9 endangered and imperiled species of mussels at the hatchery survived.
“The mussel facility took the brunt of the flood but when the waters came in, all the mussel tanks floated. So that saved the day there,” explains Hern.
Despite the destruction, Hern is optimistic about the future. The Service is committed to reopening the hatchery and returning to full operations again as soon as possible.
“It’ll take time to get back up and running, but we’ll get there. I can’t say enough about how great our staff is – their dedication and hard-work is inspiring,” says Hern. “It’s a major disaster but a minor setback.”