Waterlogged by Floods, Virginia Mountain Town Moving to Higher Ground

Wed July 16, 2003 - Northeast Edition

GRUNDY, VA (AP) Like many of the crumbling buildings in town, the old brick fire station would have been better off on stilts.

The river that snakes through Grundy has swallowed it countless times, coating everything with a powdery muck that spills onto the floor whenever fireman David Yates playfully kicks the wall with the back of his boot.

The Levisa Fork is still master here, slowly eating away everything in its flood plain. To survive, this southwestern Virginia town of 1,100 is doing the only sensible thing — it’s begun to move.

Piece by piece, many of the water-stained buildings along Main Street will be knocked down during the next few years while the town rebuilds itself across the river.

The project is part of a mammoth revitalization plan for the struggling coal town that involves enlisting the Army Corps of Engineers to move the very mountain that once confined Grundy to the river’s edge.

Already, crews have blasted away 300 ft. (91 m) of steep mountainside, cutting out 13 acres (5.3 ha) of flat land where Grundy leaders are planning a new town center, upscale apartments and space for national chain restaurants and retail stores.

An 8-ft. (2.4 m) floodwall will protect what remains on the other side, including the historic Buchanan County courthouse and the Grundy Bible Church.

Yates, Grundy’s only paid firefighter, was the first to go. Last week he moved into a brand new fire station that’s four times as big, with space for all seven of his fire trucks and a mechanical elevator for hanging his fire hoses. The old station was scheduled to be knocked down July 7.

“Yep, this town is changing,” said Yates, 34, who has spent the past few weeks boxing up pictures and cleaning out the attic.

The old station was in a prime location, within walking distance of Food City grocery store and the post office. But Yates said he is all for bulldozing the place if it will somehow breathe life into the community.

Over the years, he has seen coal miners like his father get older and sicker; school buddies grow up and look for jobs that weren’t there.

“I’ve got friends that have left here and gone,” he said. “You just don’t see them anymore.”

Grundy is about as remote as it gets in Virginia. The pretty strip of brick and clapboard homes is wedged in a tight maze of Appalachian ridges approximately 350 mi. (563 km) from the state Capitol in Richmond.

People came here more than a century ago to cut the poplar and oak, floating the timber down the river. Then coal was discovered, and in the 1930s Grundy was a boomtown.

Today, most residents either work in the coal business or have a family member who did. But the coal industry no longer provides as before. Unemployment in surrounding Buchanan County is double the state average of 4 percent. And Grundy’s population has shriveled, losing 200 people from the 1990 to 2000 census.

Life is tough here — if not for the joblessness, it’s for the flooding.

When it rains, the Levisa seems to have no boundaries — the steep mountains quickly funnel everything downward, washing over trees and rooftops above while the river banks swell from below.

In 1977, the river submerged much of the town center in 6 ft. (1.8 m) of water, causing more than $100 million in damage countywide and killing three people. And the floods keep coming — Yates talks of the one in 1984 that made his ankles soggy. Every year, the river jumps its banks at least once.

“We’re not only a distressed area, we’re depressed,” said Town Manager Chuck Crabtree. “It’s the same in a lot of small towns … people have just lost faith in their community.”

To Crabtree, Grundy had to change to survive. A few dozen buildings and landmarks are worth sacrificing if they’ll make room for new companies and a more vibrant economy.

“This town was going to die,” Crabtree said of the decision to move Grundy. “How could we not take the opportunity that’s in front of us?”

Harold Trivett, 79, a former Grundy mayor who owned and managed a clothing store along Main Street starting in 1950, said he doesn’t mind losing the old building.

“In the ’77 flood, I used up all my savings cleaning the mud out of that place,” said Trivett, whose son now runs a tobacco shop out of the building. “No. I’m happy to see it go. This will be a new town, a modern town.”

When construction is complete, Crabtree said Grundy will be three times its current size, with an additional 9 acres (3.6 ha) of flat land created by dumping the sandstone rubble from the mountain into nearby Wellmore Hollow. Bridges and a pedestrian walkway will connect each side, and buildings will be linked to high-speed Internet using a system of towers and a broadband wireless system Virginia Tech helped develop.

How tiny Grundy was able to snag a project worth at least $177 million is a story Crabtree likes to tell often.

Since the 1960s, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) had been planning to widen state Route 460, which narrows to two lanes through Grundy’s commercial center. And Congress had allocated money to protect towns in central Appalachia from disasters like the 1977 flood.

But any construction in Grundy would have meant destroying much of the town center because it’s so narrow. At first, VDOT considered moving the highway around Grundy, blasting through the ridges. And the corps put off plans in Grundy, focusing first on floodproofing towns such as Pikeville, KY, and Matewan, WV.

In the mid-1990s, the agencies decided join forces in Grundy, sharing the cost in a way that made it cheaper for both. Virginia agreed to buy the buildings it plans to demolish for the road, and the corps used VDOT’s contribution worth $20 million to $25 million as Grundy’s share of the project.

This summer, VDOT will knock down four more buildings to make room for the highway, said Ken Brittle, the VDOT district construction engineer who is supervising Virginia’s end of the project. The road widening is expected to begin by 2005.

Recently, on one of Grundy’s many rainy days, Crabtree drove his sport-utility vehicle across the cleared sandstone lot where the mountain used to be. In time, he said, there will be a bustling community here no longer worried by floods, where a younger population of entrepreneurs mix with the older generation.

“This is going to be our salvation,” Crabtree said.

Of course, with the population continuing to decline, that salvation better come soon or there won’t be many still around when the project is completed in the next several years. But town leaders say they’re not worried — a few national companies already have called and asked about moving into the new part of town.

“Don’t worry about Grundy,” Trivett said. ’This town is going to survive.”