Authorities are calling the June 2016 West Virginia rain and flooding event a “1,000 Year Flood.” That means that our Mini Campers this year had a 1,000 year Mini Camp (certainly the first of its kind in our 95 summers!)
This is not to make light of the seriousness of the heavy rains and flash flooding, but we do feel grateful that everything worked so smoothly for Camp Alleghany. Due to how we handle emergency preparedness, training, and drilling, including for floods, we had a plan well in place that went off in a coordinated and focused manner.
Thursday June 23, 2016
Let’s step back in time to last Wednesday, when storms were predicted to start coming through.
In spite of our remote location, we’re as up-to-the-minute on weather reports as anyone out there because our facility relies on a professional weather alert radio and tools for monitoring river height in our immediate vicinity as well as upstream from us. The predicted derecho (we’ve been through that before), as well as possible winds, hail, and flash flooding alerts were at the center of the Administrative team’s tracking on Wednesday.
But let’s step even further back in time to the Saturday before that, before Mini Campers arrived, when the entire staff did our customary emergency procedures training sessions which are taught and practiced during every year of Staff Training by ALL employees.
That was a successful drilling session on our various different emergency plans, such as for floods and flash floods, tornados, high winds, structure and/or forest fires, intruders (human or animal), medical emergencies, etc. Our staff did a stellar job demonstrating in real time during these practice drills what they had learned policy-wise in classroom staff training sessions.
So, then, back to Wednesday’s warnings; The Admin Team were already considering what might be coming, and when, and were doggedly monitoring the situation.
We did get rain, which is nothing new at camp, and things were fine, as the more serious levels of rainfall were still a ways off. Happily our food supplier truck had ample time to make a delivery that day, so we were well stocked with food and generator power.
On Thursday it did rain buckets and we adjusted our programming to provide sheltered rainy-day alternatives for program areas that customarily happen in outdoor areas.
With rainfall totals and river height being monitored so intensely by Facilities Director Garrett O’Dell, in collaboration with Camp Director Sam Dawson, accumulation was tracked closely. They decided that for Thursday night campers and staff should be moved into the high ground in the Play Hall and Dining Hall for the night.
After dinner, Mini Campers went directly to the Play Hall with their Tent Counselors to begin a fun evening of after-dinner activities.
Once we did this, we immediately contacted Mini Camp parents via our one-way text messaging service through remind.com to say that everyone was safe and dry and that we had plenty of food, water, and generator power. When we had more time, we followed that up with an e-mail to those families.
We sent a text to counselor parents that night as well.
At the same time, the Term Counselors, under Garrett’s on-site immediate supervision, and with on-site support by the Green Team, were told to go down to the camp tents during a time-limited Code: Blue Now alert (they know this as Flash Flood Warning) to prepare the tents for any possible water rise.
To do so, Counselors moved beds to the center of each tent, put trunks on top of the beds, picked up everything off of the tent platform floors, and secured those items and the tents. They then took any items needed for the night, and came back up to the upper level of the Dining Hall.
Fortunately, since the tents don’t have electricity, when the power went out in camp, the Counselors and campers used flashlights after dark, which was just the same as ordinary camp life in the tents overnight.
The Mini Campers, aware of the rain but not fed any fear or stress about the rainfall totals, had one big slumber party with the whole of camp!
Meanwhile back at the ranch
It was the Mini Camp Counselors’ job to engage and supervise the campers while our lead admin crew provided round-the-clock monitoring of the heavy rains and rising river over night.
It’s true that by then conditions were rapidly changing and a lot of rain was coming down. High ground provides a good view of changing conditions and it was evident that so much rainfall, as well as the rising river, were combining to bring water into the lower ground portions of camp.
Though camp facilities have seen flooding before, in our tenure as the owners and directors (since 1963 for my grandfather S. Cooper Dawson, and since 1984 for my father Sam Dawson) this was the biggest flood to hit camp while camp was in session.*
Given that history — 53 years of camp ownership and management by our family — and other floods hitting West Virginia over the years, we were so glad that the water that did come into camp only came up to the platform floors of the tents and not much higher.
We were doubly glad that that flood waters receded as quickly as they arose. While there is a dramatic photo and a dramatic-seeming video of camp with water up to the tent platforms circulating, this water was completely receded by after lunchtime the next day, on Friday, by around 2pm.
Fortunately none of the beds, mattresses, or campers’ gear was wet, only the tent platform floors. Some Counselors whose belonging were in the slightly lower ground of Senior Camp did have some “floaters” — personal belongings that floated away — and our generous Camp Alleghany Alumni Association is working to help replace items lost for those Counselors.
Actually, in camp’s history the water has never made it even anywhere close to inside the Play Hall, and it would certainly be a billion year flood apocalypse if it got as high as the Dining Hall!
So on Friday, in the dry, warm, and happy Play Hall Garrett arranged for enough generator power for the Mini Campers to watch a movie that afternoon.
While the waters rapidly receded from camp itself, we were still monitoring river height. This is actually something we do EVERY DAY, not just in rough weather, using the River Gauges and River Observation features on the NOAA website and app as well as the USGS. This practice is about as regular a procedure for us as checking the weather, and an hourly check when there is rainfall predicted for up river or heavy rainfall occurring at the time.
From all this checking we determined two things.
First, campers would not be going to go back to the tents at all due to the muddiness and mess, so another Play Hall slumber party (1,000 year Mini Camp!), and secondly, that we would not have a river crossing on Saturday but would keep our Mini Campers an extra night, meaning a third Mini Camp slumber party, (1,000 year Mini Camp!) and send them home on Sunday instead…provided the river continued to subside as it had already been doing.
I can tell you that our camp is certainly a happening place to be even in the midst of an historic downpour because when we announced to the Mini Campers during a meal in the Dining Hall that they would be staying an extra night, there were rousing cheers of joy!
On Saturday we were able to go back to some of our activities. The Mini Campers got into gear that morning and were able to do Arts & Crafts, Dance, Drama, Sports & Fitness, Wild World, and Alleghany Singers. The other activities (Archery, Tennis, Rifle, Swimming, Canoeing) all joined up with one of the activities that was operating, or enjoyed some of their own alternative, rainy-day (muddy day?) style activities. We stayed creative and everyone understood that ‘Ghany Girls always find a way through.
A very interesting result of the heavy rain fall was the rocks and sticks that flooded down from the hills, as well as our Crystal Creek reforming its own path. As a result, the Rifle Range became a little creek of its own, which is why we couldn’t operate it that day. And obviously we weren’t doing any Waterfront activities with the river so high. Soaked ground and lots of mud in both the Tennis Courts and Archery Range were what brought those activities inside.
But, the power came back on during dinner, and we held our annual Show of Shows that evening in the Play Hall, complete with performances by Dance, Drama, and Alleghany Singers. It was a fun night full of tradition, love, and emotion — we had made it through all this together and still pulled off this special night! And the campers barely knew the extent of what had happened!
That night Garrett deemed the river safe to cross by barge, and started his team working on luggage. Garrett gauges the amount of debris in the river, how high it is on our steps, and uses his many years of experience along with checking in with the official website information cited above to determine river crossing safety, a call he makes on a case-by-case basis with an abundance of caution (recall last year’s 1st Term opening day and the use of boats for the crossing).
Even triple slumber parties have to come to an end and on Sunday morning, after a final breakfast together, everyone put lifejackets on, we lined the barge with lifeguards, and took very small groups of campers, each paired with a Term Counselor, with their carry-ons one by one across the river to greet their excited parents, who couldn’t wait to hear all about the adventures.
The Mini Campers’ big luggage was already on the other side of the river, an effort that was aided by the Term Counselors who were instrumental in helping the Green Team get the Mini Camp luggage from the tents into the trucks, and then from the trucks onto the barge. It was truly a team effort!
Sadly we were not poling Term Campers back across the river for their Opening Day because the requirements for clean up, sanitizing, and repairing camp led us to postpone First Term by one week. (More on that tomorrow.)
We’re so sad to have had to cancel one week of their camp time (two weeks seems too short!) but our safety standards and camp quality are so important to us, so essential to what we offer to our camp families, that this tough decision was made in the best interest of all.
We’re sorry that we couldn’t get to telling you all about our sopping wet adventures until now. But as you can imagine, our first priority was taking care of our precious campers and camp itself, making informed and sound decisions minute-by-minute, and communicating only with the camp families that were immediately affected by the conditions and our decisions.
In an age of social media, we want all our news right now. But in an extreme weather event, our boots are on the ground and there just isn’t the time or personnel to stop and explain to a wider audience everything that was going on.
In some ways this is tough because when pictures are sent out (not by us) that lack a time stamp or a fuller context of explanation, friends and followers of Camp Alleghany can be led to believe our situation is worse than it is, or jump to conclusions about what is going on based on the photos, or due to news about the surrounding area.
With conditions changing so rapidly — including from bad-looking and unsafe to not flooded but still wet and muddy and safe again, there can be a lot of wrongful impressions about just how bad it was right at that moment.
We are so fortunate to have the experience, training, and practice drills that made dealing with this (and other weather events) something we can do with cool heads and a definitive plan.
We thank you all for the outpouring of care and concern about camp via calls, e-mails, and social media contact and we are, of course, happy to report that it looked far worse than it was.
However, it is messy!
So tune in tomorrow when I will tell you all about how we’re cleaning and repairing camp and getting ready for those campers this Sunday — three days until camp!
This Mini Camp session sure proved that camp builds resilience in kids! If you’re curious to learn more about the benefits of Mini Camp, please, download my FREE e-book, 3 Reasons to Begin Your Child’s Sleepaway Summer Camp Journey Early.
— Elizabeth Dawson Shreckhise, Assistant Director, Camp Alleghany for Girls
*Sam’s memories about the flood of 1969 during Hurricane Camille:
In August, 1969, Hurricane Camille came through and flooded the river. Family Camp was in session and there were Family Campers in Units 2 & 3, Senior Camp. Junior Camp had been dropped. My dad, (S. Cooper Dawson Jr.), got a call about 4 in the morning from the Sheriff telling him he had “a wall of water” coming his way. He got everyone up, had their stuff moved to the Play Hall for safety. All the tent ropes – less corner ropes — were untied. Then they waited. The river went out of its banks and was on the Senior Tennis Courts. Someone took pictures of people canoeing on the senior courts. About half the tents in Units 2 & 3 dropped. I was at summer school at Longwood. I went to West Virginia after that was over to help clean up/find stuff. A young man from the kitchen and I paddled down river to recover the new canoe dock. We got all five sections as well as many pieces of bent support legs. We came out at the I-64 bridge. Although there was flooding, and it sounds bad, the damage was nothing like last week to the larger surrounding area.
The 1985 flood was in November, second week I think, following two solid weeks of rain. The ’96 flood happened in January. They’d had about 18 inches of snow. Then the weather turned warmish (40’s maybe) followed by about a week of rain. Quick melt that went straight to the river. Voila! Flood! But fortunately during our off season both times.