Betty Gusler was waiting tables at the Oasis Restaurant. It was a Williamson Road mainstay most notable for its sign–two stories tall with neon palms. The lunchtime crowd was gone and the dinner crowd hadn’t yet arrived when she received a call. It was around 3:00 on November 4, 1985. Her sister was on the line.
“She told me that she didn’t want to upset me,” Betty recently explained to The Roanoke Times, “Momma and Steven and Samantha were missing.”
Her mother Sadie often cared for Steven, Betty’s ten-year-old, an only child. On November 4, Sadie heard that schools were letting out on account of the rising rivers. Steven could have stayed at school for a few hours more, but his grandmother wouldn’t have it. He was close–about a mile away from her north Roanoke home–so she put his toddler cousin Samantha into her Oldsmobile and headed into the downpour.
The rain had started days before. A disorganized weather system, it bounced between Louisiana’s coast and the Gulf of Mexico, loosing and gaining steam in cycles. At its peak, it was called Hurricane Juan and spurred 85 mph winds. By November 1, the storm was over land and weakened. It looked like it would bring a mid-autumn soaking to the Appalachians but nothing more.
Then there was a meteorological twist; moisture from Juan unexpectedly combined with another system. This new, powerful storm, a cyclone, delivered rainfall that was measured in the double-digits.
Rivers swelled across four states, including the one that Sadie crossed after picking Steven up from school. The Roanoke Times said that Sadie drove into the rising waters. Apparently her car stopped. She took the children from their seats and tried to escape, but the current was too strong. It pulled her grand babies from her arms and washed them all downstream.
“I was out of there,” Betty said. When she got the alarming phone call, she left her job. Her boyfriend, Barry Simmons, drove them in his tow truck to the spot where her mother’s car was found. Rescuers were on the scene.
Soon after Betty and Barry arrived, her niece was spotted. Samantha was only three years old but had somehow survived the torrent. She landed on an island of high ground. Water flowed on all sides but she was safe. A helicopter carried her away.
“After they found Samantha, they were looking for a while,” Betty said, “Then they called the search off.”
Darkness impeded the search party but not Betty’s brother. He grabbed a flashlight and went looking for their mother. The authorities followed him. Within an hour, Sadie’s body was found.
Betty faced the loss of her mother while holding out hope for her son. He was out there somewhere, but the relentless storm and charging waters made it impossible to continue. Everyone was sent home.
On the morning of November 5th, the waters began to recede. By first light, relatives and authorities were back on the emerging creek banks. The search resumed, but Betty was overwhelmed. She couldn’t go back. She waited at her mother’s house for word on Steven.
“It seemed like an eternity before them cars come back,” she says. “When Barry come back, I said, ‘Did you find him,’ and he shook his head ‘yeah.’ I said, ‘Is he alive,’ and he shook his head ‘no.’”
Watch this video of Betty. She sounds like a woman who has told this horrific story a thousand times. Still, the emotions overtake her when she says, “I think the death of a child is the worst thing that you can go through, to have to bury your child…”
Twenty-five years later, the flood still haunts families across our region. More than 50 people were killed in Virginia and West Virginia. The Cheat River, the Greenbrier River, the South branch of the Potomac River, the Roanoke River, the Little Kanawha River–they all flooded their banks. They carried people off. They drowned livestock. They covered bridges, tearing some apart. Houses went too, along with businesses, sheds, topsoil, boulders, and machinery of all sizes. In a rushing torrent, water swept up the earth and everything resting on it.
This month, news outlets are reporting on the flood’s lasting impact. The Roanoke Times has a special section full of photos, video testimonials, and original articles from 1985. The Charleston Gazette has a story and slideshow with powerful images.
It’s a fitting time to remember the flood’s victims. As we’re counting our blessings, I hope we all send prayers, warm thoughts, hope–whatever goodness we believe in–toward those who saw their loved ones and livelihoods washed away.
If you were in the area in 1985, you no doubt remember the flood. Please take a minute to share your story with us.