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Flooding the Zone : Hurricane Fran Sent Pete Jenkins' House Onto a Football Field and Into a Controversy

September 22, 1996|WILL KUHNS | SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON POST

The journey of Pete Jenkins' Luray, Va., house covered about 200 yards, and although any unplanned trip by a house is bound to be traumatic, the Jenkins move was more so. The floods of tropical storm Fran earlier this month plopped the house in the midst of the Luray High School athletic field and brought football -- the cornerstone of Friday night in the community -- to a stunning halt.

For seven years, the Page County board of education had been trying to purchase Jenkins' property. Jenkins' one-story, green-roofed house used to sit on an acre of land just across Route 340 from the Hawksbill Creek in Luray, Va., and is separated from the Luray High School football field by an eight-foot-high fence. The tantalizing piece of property attracted the attention of the board when it drew up long-term renovation plans in 1989 for the Bulldogs' athletic complex.

Jenkins wasn't interested. When four feet of water damaged almost all his possessions in a 1985 flood, he started over in the same house. He liked the location, even though the neighborhood was noisy on a football Friday night.

"I could have sold the house for about $35,000 a few years ago, but I didn't want to move," Jenkins said. "I wanted to stay where I was."

Enter Mother Nature.

On Sept. 6, almost 15 inches of rain fell on the Blue Ridge Mountain area as a result of Tropical Storm Fran. Hawksbill Creek overflowed into the town of Luray the same way many tributaries of the Shenandoah River did to other towns throughout the valley.

On the morning of the storm, Jenkins called his granddaughter and told her that a foot of stagnant water surrounded his house. Fifteen minutes later he called again, saying the Hawksbill had risen over Route 340 and burst into his house. Jenkins and his wife waded through waist-deep waters to get to his van, which he had parked on a hill the night before.

A few hours later, the house began its baffling journey. Pushed off its foundation by nine-foot deep flood waters, it was first carried northeast about 20 yards, away from the field. Then circular currents generated by a nearby ridge changed its course; the house moved east and south, mowing down the fence behind the end zone. The house moved moved slowly down the football field, as far as the 40-yard line, according to eyewitnesses, before the receding water nestled it unceremoniously on the track, straddling the goal line. Jenkins' front porch is now lanes 4 and 5 of the track. His back door is in the end zone.

"To know that there is a house washed up on the football field -- in a way it's funny, but in a way it's not, because that takes away the main interest on Friday night for a lot of people," said Luray senior captain Daniel Culpepper, a wide receiver. "This is a small town where football in Luray is pretty big to most people."

The football season had started promisingly for the Group A Bulldogs. After going 1-19 over the previous two seasons, they were 33-22 opening day winners over Manassas Park Aug. 30. Three days after the storm they resumed workouts on their practice field on high ground next to the school building. Five days and one practice after the storm, the team played a postponed game at William Monroe and another game four days later, on Sept. 14, at Madison County. They lost both by a combined score of 55-6. The remainder of Luray's home games tentatively are scheduled to be played at rival Page County High School.

If they cannot use their field, Culpepper continued, "we will have to go up to the rival end of the county to play all of our home games where we don't have as many fans as we do antagonizers. It kind of hurts to see it."

It also hurt Jenkins and his wife Elizabeth, both 67, to see the house they owned for 25 years, and all their possessions, shoved aside and completely ruined. Everything in the house is jumbled about, like clothes in a washing machine, and coated with mud. The house reeks.

"I'm going to buy another piece of land and get a mobile home, up in Lake Arrowhead, on high ground," said Jenkins.

The flood gave Jenkins no other option. The school board has agreed with Jenkins to purchase the acre of land -- the one they originally wanted in their expansion plans -- for $15,000, but until the deal is closed, the board will not allow anyone on the field, said Dave Nagy, superintendent of schools. The school board will also assume responsibility for removing the house from the field.

The town of Luray and the rest of Page County face months of clean-up and recovery from an estimated $25 million in damages, according to County Administrator Ron Wilson. About 10 houses were destroyed in Luray and two downtown businesses were washed away. With 78 homes destroyed and 417 more damaged, Page County was the hardest hit area in Virginia by Fran, according to Red Cross statistics.

Luray was not scheduled to play this weekend and has an away game on Sept. 27. Much must be done for Luray to reclaim its home field in time for the next scheduled game, homecoming on Oct. 4.

Coach Dave Hinegardner and Luray Principal Bill Ingram hope that the the field will be playable by then. Nagy is not so optimistic.

"I wouldn't count on it," said Nagy, citing structural inspections of the bleachers, track cleaning and other tasks in addition to legal settlement on the house.

"Sports are a very big part of the town -- all types of sports," said Luray Mayor Ralph Dean, who usually attends home and away football games. "It's like any team: When it has a winning season, it unifies people. When it loses, not as much. You can't have all winners, but it's still important to have sports because at least it shows that something goes on after something like this."

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