Pain lingers from WV floods

BY HEATHER MOYER | SOUTHERN WEST VIRGINIA | September 21, 2001



"There's been a lot of cleanup, but there are still thousands of damaged homes that aren't repaired and may not be for years."

—Kristina Peterson


"It was truly a flash flood—it hit that fast, I've never seen anything hit so quickly." Those are words from Carol Perfin, a resident of southern West Virginia where flash floods devastated many small towns in June and July. Five people died and hundreds of homes were wiped out when the areas received several rounds of heavy rains. Now almost two months later, the towns are seeing just what a long-term recovery it's going to be.

"It's still a mess down here," said Kristina Peterson, a disaster resource consultant (DRC) with Church World Service (CWS). "There's been a lot of cleanup, but there are still thousands of damaged homes that aren't repaired and may not be for years. There are still cars in the riverbeds, garbage is lying around in some parts, debris removal is still an issue, and there's mud

everywhere."

Peterson said many efforts are underway to establish long-term relief outlets, but that the route has not proven to be an easy one. "This tragedy has hit in many ways," said Peterson. "People are still shocked and feeling uneasy." Peterson said a major part of the recovery effort is looking to implement both short- and long-term sustainable development plans to attempt to rescue the sagging local economy and depressed economic conditions. The depressed economic base of the region makes the work difficult, said Peterson.

Dick Krajeski is another DRC working in the area with Peterson. He said some of the businesses in the area have not yet reopened, and crucial social service agencies are hitting tough spots, too. "Many agencies are having a hard time staying open, they don't have the funds to meet some of these needs," said Krajeski. "Even most of the churches down here are tiny, and may have to close because they also don't have the funds or even a pastor. So we're really looking at survival of these agencies—their services will be crucial over the next years, and if they close we'll have some big problems."

Peterson said she and people from the West Virginia Council of Churches (WVCC), along with other groups, are working to get funding from outside sources to help keep these places running. They even recently met with the West Virginia Governor's task force on development and are bringing in a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) expert on floodplain management to help deal with mitigation issues. "We're trying to find ways to put the puzzle together, this disaster is going in a much different direction than maybe a disaster in an area with a better economic base might go," she said.

Peterson believes this disaster will still get larger because of these issues.

Doug Goebel of the WVCC has been working extensively on the disaster since it happened. He said the WVCC is preparing to hire a coordinator for the intermediate and long-term relief efforts and that they've already pulled in many resources to assist those who need it. The WVCC helped organize an event where they had brought together people with homes and property damaged by the floods with representatives from the West Virginia Housing Development Fund, loan companies, community development organizations, and other related organizations. The

event was meant to help the flood survivors with their recovery process. "A wide gambit of experts came together to help and we got a lot of ideas flowing from it," said Goebel.

Goebel said they're also planning (with the CWS DRCs) an outing this Friday for the pastors and other caregivers who have worked so hard to respond to this disaster.

"We're calling it a pastoral care helpers' day," he said. "It's a

chance for them to get out for a day to a local park for

some discussions and to recharge their batteries."

Peterson said a big project they're currently developing is bringing in FEMA's "Project Recovery" to help build new affordable homes and train local residents to assist in the construction. "We're approaching a foundation to help bring this to town, and we really hope that it comes through," she said.

Even though the work ahead will be a challenge, Krajeski and Peterson remain optimistic. "We do feel fortunate that all the survivors here, the local caregivers, the state government—all

of us, we're all on the same page in terms of what needs to happen here, which is that we need to not just focus on the emergency relief, but long-term sustainability," said Krajeski.

Carol Perfin is not just a resident of the flooded regions, but also works for the Tug River Health Center. She's seen the recovery reactions and process firsthand with her job at the center.

"The main problem in the beginning is that people were scared, they didn't want to leave their homes for fear that they would lose everything," said Perfin. "For about three weeks here (at the Health Center) we didn't see anyone."

She said as time passed, people did relax and she started seeing more of them—only it was so many that they ran low on tetanus vaccine from everyone's exposure to the dirty water. Vaccine reinforcements arrived from other local health centers and the Centers for Disease Control, but Perfin said there are still plenty of other worries that affect her deeply. Her center also does a large amount of outreach work with mothers who have

young children. "One of the things that distressed me the most was that when we would do a house call to a young mom, the babies were usually fretful and crying," she said. "I felt as though these young ones picked up on their moms' reactions, the moms were all pretty distraught and such, and I think the babies felt it too. So then I made sure that these moms had regular visits and people out there helping them."

But according to Perfin, the tough times come with moments of joy and happiness mixed in. On a visit to a local elementary school, Perfin said she was almost in tears when she saw the generosity of one anonymous donor.

"Someone, and we don't know who it was, had sent every kid in that school a new backpack," she said. "It was so wonderful."

The area is still in need of major outside help. Krajeski and Peterson share a worry. "A big concern is if people's focus on the terrorist tragedies last week draws energy from West Virginia," said Peterson.

Krajeski, Peterson, and Goebel said the best way to help those affected by the floods in West Virginia is with a monetary donation through one's own particular denominational disaster relief agency. Krajeski added that they also need skilled workers and building supplies, or at least monetary donations for building supplies.

Another way to help is to pursue being a temporary pastor for one of the small, struggling local churches without a pastor. But Krajeski said one should work that out concretely with one's own denomination and the local church before just "showing up."

Perfin said her center is in need of diapers, but added that people should not send monetary donations or diapers directly to their health center. Instead, she said, people should also go through a denominational affiliate relief organization and earmark it for her center. "I don't know that we'll ever recover totally," said Perfin, "but we'll always be here to help."


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