BEREA (AP) — What began as a relaxing retreat for the Gardners of Berea last week, quickly transformed into a nightmarish scene as the small West Virginia town of Rainelle, where the Gardners were staying, was devastated by massive flooding.
Kim Gardner said she and her husband Curt, who is the pastor of Trinity PCA Church, were taking part in a much-needed sabbatical at the Fruits of Labor retreat in Rainelle.
However, as the couple’s wonderful week drew to a close, rain clouds began to loom over the small town on last week, bringing with it the rain that soon destroyed thousands of homes and businesses across the state.
As Gardner and her husband enjoyed a nice lunch from the Fruits of Labor cafe last Thursday afternoon, Gardner eyed the overcast skies surrounding the West Virginia town, paying no mind to the gathering clouds and instead focusing on the delicious farm-to-table meal from the cafe.
As the Gardners ate, fat raindrops splattered across the windows and the rain began to pelt Rainelle’s Main Street.
“It started raining hard and we decided to leave,” Gardner explained. “We left the cafe at around 2 p.m. but came across a road block. The state troopers said there was no way out, the road was not passable. That’s how quickly the floods came, everything was fine just a couple of hours before.”
Perplexed and with rain coming down in torrents, the couple decided to return to the cafe and regroup. Two employees had decided to go home for the day and the Gardners decided to follow suit, relying on the local’s knowledge of the area to get them out of the streets gushing with water.
“Around 3:30, we tried to make it out again and we crossed over a shallow creek and I looked out the window and the water was angry. It was scary,” said Gardner as she described the scene just outside her window. “We started up a mountain and the water was running over the roads — it was two or three-feet deep. It looked like white water rapids. It scared me.”
Gardner said her view of the rushing waters was what caused fear to sink in.
“That was the time I was most afraid, I cried all the way back to the cafe. It (the road) was one of the few ways out and it was gone. We were stuck,” she explained.
That’s when Gardner looked at her husband and the realization sunk in that they would be forced to go back to Main Street, where water levels had steadily risen with each passing minute.
“I told Curt we couldn’t possibly make it up there. It was suicide to try and continue. So we turned back,” Gardner said.
By the time the couple and employees of the cafe had made it back to Main Street, it was 4:15 p.m. and the water was already lapping across the town’s sidewalks.
Gardner said her husband parked where they thought was a high point in town and took refuge back inside the cafe.
Thirty minutes later, the group of six was mopping water from the cafe’s floor that had started pouring into the cracks in the front door.
By 5 p.m., the group had given up hope of battling the incoming water and gathered what food they could and headed to the second-floor of the restaurant.
Staring out the windows, Gardner said she watched as within just a few hours, the small town of 1,500 people turned into a lake of churning water.
As the group made camp upstairs and began calling and texting loved ones on their phones asking for prayers, the lights above them flickered out.
“It was amazing how fast it happened,” said Gardner of the rising waters. “Before we knew it, two gas stations across from us were under water.”
As the group passed the night on the floor, shouts could be heard in the darkness from nearby houses as trapped residents called for help into the morning hours and boats whizzed past carrying groups of wearied people, pets and whatever they could carry before flood waters swept them away.
By daybreak, more than 20 people were dead across the state due to the waters.
The rain, which had started falling across Greenbrier County around 2 a.m. Thursday, and came down at a rate of two inches an hour between 1 and 3 p.m., had forced more than 400 people into temporary shelters across the state.
“The National Guard would float by us in the middle of the night and ask us if we were okay,” Gardner recalled. “We knew we were in a building that was structurally sound and were safe for now, so we would wave them on. We knew other people needed them more than we did. Whole buildings just floated away.”
Gardner said the group trapped in the upstairs of the cafe got little sleep as the lapping waters and strange smells filtered in and out of the darkened room.
“My first thought was this must be what prison feels like. Then I began to see that it felt like we were in a concentration camp. There was nowhere to go. Nothing we could do to stop what was going on around us. By the time we were rescued, we all looked like refugees. It made me realize what a very blessed life I have,” Gardner said.
By noon Friday, the group could no longer flush the toilet as the flood waters had backed up the town’s sewage system.
As the water began to recede from the town’s downtown streets, Gardner’s group waited for rescuers to pass by with a boat.
Rescue came a couple of hours later, and as Gardner and her husband were ferried across the water, the couple hugged each other close.
“We went back up to the retreat and when we got there, it was like nothing had happened. Everything was very surreal. It was like watching a movie, but we were in the movie. It kind of seems like I’m telling you a story that I heard from someone else. I just can’t believe we experienced that,” Gardner said.
The cafe and food ministry, where the Gardners were visiting, has been completely destroyed.