Skip to content

West Virginia’s “Killing Waters” Of 1985

November 4, 2015

By Paul Homewood 


h/t Botanyjrg 


Tonight marks the 30th anniversary of what was arguably the worst flooding to hit West Virginia in the last century or more.

The West Virginia Encyclopedia has this account:



Flood of 1985


During the last week of October 1985, weak winds over the United States, south of 40 degrees latitude, allowed a late-season tropical storm named Juan to meander along the Gulf of Mexico coast. On Thursday, October 31, the weakening Juan moved north, leaving abundant moisture over the Southeast.

On Sunday, November 3, another storm formed in southeastern Georgia. This new storm was now in position to tap the moisture left in the atmosphere by Juan. Occasional rain fell over West Virginia on November 3. By the predawn on Monday, November 4, a large area of rain began to form from western North Carolina north to southern West Virginia. This rain continued to strengthen while shifting northeast toward Elkins and Petersburg by late morning. The storm center moved slowly north, reaching the Lynchburg, Virginia, vicinity by nightfall. The circulation around the storm pulled additional moisture from the Atlantic coast, and the winds blowing up the eastern slopes of the Appalachians augmented rain totals. These factors kept the heavy rains falling into Monday night. Rainfall rates of three to six inches in 12 hours were observed over the headwaters of the Potomac, Greenbrier, and Little Kanawha rivers. These same rainfall rates affected an even larger percentage of the Cheat, Tygart Valley, and West Fork river basins.

In response to the rain, many head-water rivers rose rapidly with the onset of darkness that Monday evening. Severe flooding took place overnight. After midnight, the rain became lighter, but by then, fatal flooding was under way. The 24-hour rainfall amounts, ending near dawn on Tuesday, November 5, were four to eight inches from the Covington and Roanoke area of Virginia northward, to include the area from Clarksburg to Petersburg in West Virginia. The low clouds and light rain that fell during the day on November 5 did not affect river crest heights, but did hamper rescue operations from the air.

The Cheat and Greenbrier rivers crested at record levels. Record water heights were also seen on portions of the Tygart Valley, Little Kanawha, and West Fork rivers, and on the North and South Branches of the Potomac. At Parsons, the Cheat River crested 10 feet above flood stage and four feet higher than the previous record from July 1888. At Glenville, the Little Kanawha River crested 13 feet above flood stage and about two feet higher than the March 1967 flood. At Philippi, the Tygart Valley River crested nearly 15 feet above flood stage and around four feet higher than the previous record stage. At Moorefield, the South Branch of the Potomac River crested about 10 feet above flood stage and nearly four feet higher than June 1949, the previous record.

In West Virginia, 47 people were killed in the flood of 1985. Pendleton and Grant counties had the most fatalities. Towns such as Parsons, Rowlesburg, Philippi, Marlinton, Glenville, Petersburg, and Moorefield were severely damaged. The upper James and Roanoke rivers in neighboring Virginia also had fatal record flooding. In the aftermath of this flood, cleanup and recovery efforts were greatly aided by an unusually mild November.



  1. November 4, 2015 10:58 pm

    Reblogged this on WeatherAction News.

  2. November 5, 2015 1:03 pm

    It has been an interesting few days as the weather is now sunny and in the ’70’s to hear the commemoration on the radio of what happened 30 years ago. It hit such a large part of the state from the north-central through the eastern panhandle and through the mountains. There have been a lot of clips from those who were affected and those involved in rescue. One National Guard helicopter crew was lifting people out of trees by ropes and over the river to safety. A man from Parsons is telling on the radio now as I type about the fact that there was no warning. The waters rose SO fast in the deep, steep-sided valleys we have. Parsons has never really recovered as the woolen mills and publishing business there are gone. Rowlesburg has been largely rebuilt as all the access into that valley town on the Cheat River was destroyed–roads, bridges,,,,

    But as with all such previous weather curve-balls and the more recent derecho of June 29, 2012 which plowed across most of WV, out come the chain saws and neighbors helping others. Many, many were without electricity for more than a month. Then in late October, Hurricane Sandy dumped 3-4 feet of snow over much of the WV mountains. While everyone was whining in NJ, out came the chain saws and 4-wheel drives. Power crews sometimes had to wade through waist deep snow to get to downed lines, repair them and than wade back out.

    I am always glad that I live a mile back from and 500 feet above the Monongahela River. It would take even more than the vaunted 8 foot sea level rise to flood me.

  3. November 5, 2015 1:47 pm

    I live in southwestern Pennsylvania, a few hundred feet from the Monongahela River and a few miles from California University of Pennsylvania. I was in class at Cal U 30 years ago today, when somebody came around to tell us the riverside parking lot was starting to flood so those who had parked there had to leave immediately. Our house was eventually surrounded by water, though it only came up inside to about a foot below the first floor. I still recall looking down towards the main channel of the river and seeing kitchen appliances being swept towards Pittsburgh. We call it the Election Day Flood. We’ve had nothing like it since, and who knows when we will again. But we can be certain that an event like that nowadays would surely be blamed on CO2.

    • November 5, 2015 1:59 pm

      EL Core, are you related to my late undergraduate major professor in botany at WVU, Dr. Earl Lemley Core?

  4. November 5, 2015 3:30 pm

    I don’t know. Could be. I’ve heard there are a lot of Cores in WV.

    • November 6, 2015 12:35 pm

      There is town of Core in western Monongalia County. After retiring as a botanist from WVU, Dr. Core wrote a 5 volume work: The Monongalia Story.

      • November 6, 2015 2:47 pm

        Yes, I’ve heard of that town, but I’ve never been there. I should probably put it on my bucket list. 🙂

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: