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Run out of Coonskin by high winds, couple weds anyway

CHARLESTON, W.Va.-- Belinda Belling was hosting her daughter's rehearsal dinner at Coonskin Park when Friday night's storm hit.

About 70 people had gathered under the Columbia shelter for a catered barbecue dinner at 6 p.m. But an hour later, the sky turned green, and high winds started whipping food off the tables.

"A park ranger comes up and says, 'You need to leave immediately,'" Belling said.

Belling's daughter and now son-in-law were supposed to hold their Saturday wedding reception at Coonskin Park, but the damage from the storm altered their plans. Despite the setback, the Bellings managed to have a wedding Saturday, thanks to the help from people around the city.

The bride, Chelsea Belling, attended South Charleston High School and is a 2012 graduate of the University of Tennessee. The groom, Ben Pobst, graduated from the University of Tennessee in 2011 and is from Nashville. The couple met at school about three years ago and got engaged in November, Belinda said.

Chelsea was handing out bridesmaid and groomsmen gifts when the storm hit Friday. Some guests tried to take cover in the shelter's kitchen, but they had to run for their cars, which were shaking in the storm.

The windstorm ripped apart the 999-acre park, knocking down hundreds of trees and throwing branches. One tree fell between the entrance to Coonskin and the Air National Guard, bringing down power lines and transformers and blocking the group's exit, Kanawha County Parks Director Jeff Hutchinson said.

Members of the Air National Guard routed the caravan of about 100 cars through Yeager Airport, bringing Friday night's festivities to a halt, Belinda said.

Chelsea's grandmother, Pat Waldron, had driven to West Virginia from Florida with a wedding coordinator. On Saturday, they awoke at 4:30 a.m. to devise a contingency plan. Waldron started making calls at 6:30 a.m. -- to the florist, the hairstylist and the caterer.

She had told her granddaughter she would get a once-in-a-lifetime reception, and she intended to uphold that promise.

"I said, 'Chelsea, you will have a reception today. I just don't know where it will be'" Waldron said.

The caterer, Jeff Meehan, director of food and beverage for the West Virginia Power baseball team, came to the family's rescue. He secured Power Alley Grill for the day so the Bellings could have the party in the restaurant, and he gave them the facility for free.

"They were stuck," Meehan said. "They didn't have a venue so, I mean, I didn't want it to ruin their day."

But the decorations for the reception were still in the Hearth Room at Coonskin Park. Once again, members of the Air National Guard led the family through the airport and into the park, where Hutchinson's staff let them into the clubhouse.

"We always try to provide the best we can for the people coming to use the park," Hutchinson said.

After 2.5 hours of setting up the reception at Power Alley Grill, the wedding went on as scheduled, at 6:30 p.m. June 30 at the Charleston Baptist Temple. Chelsea was the third generation in her family to say her vows in the church, and about 100 people turned out for the event.

Belinda said her daughter took the change in plans in stride, and Chelsea, her husband and their friends liked the venue because they had studied architecture in college.

The family and the wedding coordinator agreed the reception was one of the best they'd ever attended, partly because people came ready for a party, Belinda said.

Waldron said she's amazed by the kindness of West Virginians who helped make Chelsea's wedding possible.

"I know what it's like when a major disaster hits," she said, wiping a tear from her eye. "I don't know how to say thank you to the people of Charleston."

Reach Alison Matas at alison.matas@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100.


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