Reaching out in Appalachia

BY SUSAN KIM | HURLEY, VA | May 7, 2002

"This is as bad as last July, if not worse."

—Bob Mullins

Flash flooding in the rugged terrain where Virginia and West Virginia meet Kentucky has upturned entire towns, taken lives, and left hundreds homeless.

This is the second time in less than a year this region has been devastated by floods, mudslides, and torrential rains.

McDowell, Mercer, Mingo, and Wyoming counties in West Virginia were declared federal disaster areas this week, as were Buchanan and Tazewell counties in Virginia.

"This is as bad as last July, if not worse. It also appears to be even more widespread," said Salvation Army Auxiliary Captain Bob Mullins as he surveyed the damage in hard-hit McDowell County, WV.

The heaviest damage in Virginia was northeast of the town of Grundy in the vicinity of Hurley, Stacy, Blackey, Wolford, Green Brier, Slate Creek, and Marvin, according to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. In those areas alone, 200 or more homes were affected, and half those were either destroyed or sustained major damage.

The town of Hurley was so hard hit that eyewitnesses have said, "it just doesn't exist anymore." The area experienced major infrastructure damage, including damage to water systems, and the entire Hurley area is under a boil water order.

Residents were advised to apply lime to any areas of their property that may contain raw sewage discharges they could come in contact with during recovery and cleanup efforts.

The Buchanan County Health Department set up a tetanus vaccine clinic at the Hurley Middle School for residents of the Hurley community.

This week there were still numerous loose tanks containing potential hazardous materials -- propane and other fuels -- throughout the flood-affected areas. People were advised to notify local emergency officials if they see hazardous material containers or spills. Propane tanks present a high risk for explosion and fire.

Car batteries from damaged vehicles may contain an electrical charge, officials warned, advising residents to wear insulated gloves when removing car batteries and avoid coming in contact with any acid that may have spilled.

Rescue crews had to search last week for dozens of missing people. When the floodwaters rose people had to be plucked from rooftops, and rescued from vehicles and even school buses.

Severe thunderstorms followed the initial flash flooding, so wind and tornado damage was sustained on top of water damage.

Many areas in the mountains were still isolated this week as relief and response crews struggled to reach them. The National Guard was called out to help with debris cleanup and with building temporary bridges.

Local church and national faith-based responders are reaching out to help. Church World Service (CWS) is working with local community groups in a response that will continue for months to come.

CWS's efforts are being supported by many of its partner denominations, including Week of Compassion, a giving program administered by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Week of Compassion is also making local grants to assist congregations and families in need.

The Salvation Army activated its emergency response teams immediately in several West Virginia counties and in Tazewell County, VA after the flooding struck last week. The group is also working in many other flood-affected communities throughout Appalachia.

"People were flagging us down as we traveled through the North Fork section of McDowell County," said Mullins. "Many just wanted to talk and ask how soon we would be able to help."

The group opened shelters for families who were stranded when the water rose. Now Salvation Army teams are obtaining a warehouse to receive thousands of cleanup kits, water, and other supplies needed for recovery.

The organization began accepting food, cleanup supplies, and other items Monday.

No clothing will be needed at this time, response leaders said, indicating that monetary donations are the best way to help.

The Southern Baptists were providing meals to flood survivors, and the American Red Cross had shelters open across the region.

Beloved pets are also being cared for, as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) activated two disaster response teams in West Virginia. HSUS also continues to monitor flooded areas in Virginia and Kentucky.

Two HSUS rescue teams are in the field, working with state and county emergency management officials to assist area residents and local agencies. The teams are visiting communities along the Tug Fork River, assessing the needs of animals in the flooded areas, delivering pet food to local food distribution centers and individuals, and rendering immediate assistance to families in those communities.

HSUS personnel have rescued injured pets as well.

HSUS assessment teams are currently determining animal needs in McDowell and Mingo counties in West Virginia. Working with disaster experts at the HSUS headquarters in the Washington, DC area, volunteer coordinators in Virginia continue to canvas flooded areas in that state.

HSUS is working closely with West Virginia and Virginia area humane societies to provide transport and temporary housing for pets displaced by the flood waters.

"The destruction caused in a few short moments by this flooding serves as a reminder to all of us that we should all have a disaster plan that includes our pets," said Anne Culver, HSUS director of disaster services. "Many of these people had only a few minutes to evacuate. Having a plan and having a disaster kit packed and ready to go can save precious time in a disaster."

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