WV recovery may test new model

BY PJ HELLER | WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, WV | August 23, 2001



"In that part of West Virginia, whether you were directly impacted or not, you were still impacted."

—Dick Krajeski


Recovery plans for rural southern West Virginia, decimated by flooding earlier this summer, could serve as a nationwide model for economic and sustainable development, according to relief officials.

"We're looking at it in a new way for most disaster recovery in this country," said Dick Krajeski, a disaster response specialist with Church World Service.

Krajeski, interviewed after a two-day meeting here of about 50 federal, state, local, faith-based and private recovery officials - including some who are recognized internationally - said redevelopment plans calling for housing, jobs, schools and infrastructure improvement could be a model for the U.S. to follow in other disasters.

The meeting was organized under the auspices of the West Virginia Council of Churches. It focused on needs, problems that are unique to this particular disaster and what resources can be applied to meet those needs.

Krajeski said researchers and other disaster recovery specialists have for at least 15 years been urging a plan that "concentrates on reducing human vulnerability through decent housing, jobs and schools" and which increases the capacity of people "by helping them do it for themselves rather than doing it for them."

"That's our prayer," Krajeski said.

Stan Hankins of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance said the Monday and Tuesday gathering of experts from various fields, along with possible financial backers, was highly unusual.

"I've never seen a similar gathering like this in the aftermath of any disaster," said Hankins, who also attended the meeting. "I think it can be very helpful. We tend to rush in and start rebuilding and maybe not look at all of the various options that are available."

Among the options discussed was building affordable "environmentally friendly" homes so that residents could have running water and electricity year round.

In some areas, residents are so poor that they ask that their electricity be disconnected because they can't afford the bills. Homes in some areas lack running water.

Hankins said the challenges go far beyond rebuilding or repairing the several thousand homes damaged or destroyed by the flooding that has occurred since June 3.

"When you talk about a response, it's more than just replacing homes," he said. "It's got to look at the economic viability of these communities as well."

Krajeski agreed.

"In that part of West Virginia, whether you were directly impacted or not, you were still impacted," he said, explaining that some people might not have lost their house but they might have lost their jobs and the places where they shop. "The whole area has been impacted. It's a much bigger disaster than just the number of homes damaged or destroyed."

Twenty-four counties have been declared federal disaster areas. Krajeski said initial efforts at redevelopment would likely focus in four or five of the hardest hit counties.

Another challenge facing the group is the lack of available land for rebuilding. Some of the terrain is too steep to build on and large tracts of suitable land are owned by mining, timber and other interests.

Krajeski admitted that the road to recovery would be long and arduous. He predicted it could take a decade before the area, already one of the poorest in the nation, recovered. He said it would take a joint effort between the interfaith and public and private communities. Economic development was among the areas to be addressed.

"We're hoping that by getting all these folks talking together, rather than them going off independently, we can pool our resources," he said. "If we can't do it as cooperatively as possible, then we're going to have a lot of folks who are going to be homeless."

"This is an opportunity to do things right, to take mitigation seriously so the same thing doesn't happen again," he added. "We want to reduce the vulnerabilities of the whole area and increase the capacities of the people."

Krajeski said he was neither optimistic nor pessimistic about the chances for success.

"I have hope," he said. "Hope is a different kind of thing . . . If we are faithful and creative and open to possibilities then some things will happen that are beyond our wildest expectations.

"I don't think everybody will get back," Krajeski added. "But I think we have a chance to make life better long-term in that part of West Virginia."

Another meeting of the group was to be scheduled.

Meanwhile, officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reported that more than $33 million in federal disaster recovery assistance has been sent to West Virginia residents as of early August. It said it had received 11,238 applications for assistance.


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