NEW CUMBERLAND - Now that he's had time to process the events of the last few days, Paul Miller can only shake his head in wonder at the fact that neither he nor anyone else was injured in last Friday's flooding incident in New Cumberland.
"I've seen stuff like that on TV, but I never thought it would happen to me," Miller said on Thursday. "My heart was pounding."
Officials now believe that millions of gallons of water were released from an abandoned mine on Friday while Miller, of 37 Still St., New Cumberland, was working in his backyard with a backhoe. Miller said his backyard has been soggy for a long time, and he was trying to determine the source of the moisture.
MAJOR DAMAGE — Paul Miller, right, talks to New Cumberland Mayor Richard Blackwell on Thursday about the catastrophic release of water that happened on his property last Friday. The gaping hole in his backyard now yields a steady stream of water. -- Stephen Huba
Digging with his backhoe shortly after 11 a.m. Friday, Miller got more than he bargained for.
First, Miller saw a line of rust-red water bubbling up out the ground. He moved closer to investigate, when, all of a sudden, there was an eruption of water.
"The ground and everything came at me. I jumped off my backhoe and ran," said Miller, whose property sits near the top of a hill just outside the city limits. "I'm still nervous talking about it."
The former mechanic ran toward his house, then realized that he needed to move the backhoe. After removing the machinery from the area, he ran downhill and to a neighbor's house.
"If water was chasing me, I'd be running uphill," said New Cumberland Mayor Richard Blackwell, who's been checking on Miller in the days since the flood.
On Monday, officials with the city, the Hancock County Office of Emergency Management, the West Virginia Division of Highways and the West Virginia Office of Abandoned Mine Lands gathered in New Cumberland to assess the damage and come up with a plan of action.
While the worst is over, the tell-tale signs of the flood can be seen along Rolling Acres Road, under the Hardins Run Road bridge, on Commerce Street and in Miller's backyard.
A gaping hole in his backyard now yields a steady stream of water - a stream that likely won't stop until it's contained and channeled through a proper drainage system.
Two 12-by-12 wooden beams, probably from an old mine, lie downstream of the hole. They were the scariest part of the flood for Miller, he said.
"It shot out of there like a toothpick," he said of the first beam.
On Rolling Acres Road, millions of gallons of water flooded the side drainage ditches, carrying with it rocks, mud, sticks and debris, Blackwell said. The man-made river split in two, with some of the water careening over a cliff and down a hill onto Commerce Street, and the rest flooding the intersection of Rolling Acres and Hardins Run roads and the bridge.
"The water and mud was coming down two to three feet deep," said Blackwell, who estimates that in some places the water was five feet high.
"I still have a hard time picturing that. That's a bunch of water all at one time," said 1st Ward Councilman Pat Jones, who also is chief water operator for the city.
In addition to the flooding, Jones and other city employees had to deal with 150 feet of city water line that had been exposed by the rushing water. City crews worked through the weekend to re-cover the water lines and repair other flood damage.
On Thursday, crews with the Division of Highways patched portions of Rolling Acres Road that had been damaged in the flooding. They also repaired the damage to the drainage ditches. Blackwell said the damage has been estimated at more than $35,000.
Also damaged was a city storm sewer at the bottom of the hill on Commerce Street, Blackwell said.
Officials are uncertain regarding the origins of the water, but Blackwell has a hunch that it came from a capped clay mine once belonging to the Acme Fire Clay & Coal Co. Whether the water came from an abandoned clay mine or a coal mine - both of which existed to supply the city's once-vibrant brickyards - could mean the difference between Miller getting help from the state or not.
The Office of Abandoned Mine Lands, which has authority and jurisdiction in cases involving the adverse impact of past mining, is investigating the cause of the blowout, said Acting Chief Mike Richardson.
"We know what (a mine blowout) looks like, and that sure looks like one," he said. "They're not common, but we do have them quite often. We know how to address them."
Richardson said such blowouts occur when there is a sudden release of water that has collected in an area not identified as a mine entry.
"You have a higher end and a lower end. The water is built up underground, and you will have pressure on the downstream end," he said.
The office first will hire an engineer to drill for samples to see where the coal seam is and how much water is in it, Richardson said. So far, there are no records to indicate who mined the area or what was mined, he said.
If the mine is determined to be a coal mine or a combination coal-clay mine, then federal money should be available to develop an abatement plan and remediate the hazard, Richardson said.
John Paul Jones, director of the Hancock County Office of Emergency Management, said he is coordinating the state and federal response.
Correcting the problem will involve installing drainage pipe and conveying the water safely to the nearest stream, which, in this case, is Hardins Run, Blackwell said.
(Huba can be contacted at email@example.com)