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A world washed away

BY SUSAN KIM | WELCH, WV | May 17, 2002

"And there were kid's toys sitting in the bookcase. It just makes me cry to tell this."

—Christine Hatfield

She stood in front of her swamped house holding her baby. Her father had been swept away by floodwaters.

She could see relief trucks driving by but they couldn't reach her. The bridge that was her driveway -- and all the bridges on her mountainside -- were washed out.

This woman was among those caught in the recent Appalachian flooding, many of whom are still so alone they feel like they live in a different world, said Joann Hale, a disaster response and recovery liaison with Church World Service.

It's a disaster so damaging that even seasoned responders break into tears when they come across the scene. "There was a house sitting there and the whole front of it was gone," described Christine Hatfield with the McDowell County, WV Flood Recovery Task Force. "And there were kid's toys sitting in the bookcase. It just makes me cry to tell this."

And there are hundreds of stories that have yet to be told. Slowly -- via all-terrain vehicles and on foot -- relief groups are reaching people to offer a hot meal or a cleanup kit or simply some compassion.

The Salvation Army has served more than 25,000 hot meals in a little less than two weeks. But such big numbers don't diminish the small things that people do for each other.

"One canteen driver got a donation of five cents from a mentally disabled 16-year-old girl," said Pam McCaffrey of The Salvation Army. "She said that was all she had and that she wanted him to have it. It made his day."

Beth Grimes paused from shoveling mud out of her basement to add her own story. She moved to Welch, WV with her husband, the Rev. Steve Grimes, a pastor at the First United Methodist Church, 13 days before flooding hit in July 2001.

This month the parsonage was hit again. "It was much worse this time," she said.

Their home's wiring, hot water heater, and heating system were all ruined. Even more painful, they lost irreplaceable photos, well-worn and well-honed tools, Christmas ornaments.

As Rev. Grimes tries to minister to many in his congregation affected by flooding, he's trying to cope with his own losses. "It's a situation where those trying to help people are affected themselves," said Hale.

There have been some bright moments this week, Grimes reflected. The National Guard helped the couple dig out. And Wednesday the Grimes got new electrical wiring.

The Grimes are among hundreds of people coping with repetitive flood damage in this region. "A lot of people were hit twice," explained Christine Hatfield with the McDowell County, WV Flood Recovery Task Force. "But then a lot of people not hit last year lost everything this year."

For those hit more than once, "there is utter shock in the repetitive group," said David Hoge, chair of the Virginia state Voluntary Agencies Active in Disaster, a coalition of responding groups that meets to coordinate response.

Hoge said this latest round of flooding took many response leaders by surprise. "Honestly you don't think it will happen again this quickly."

For every person coping with repetitive flooding there seems to be others confronting the shock of a first-time disaster. "We found a man who had lived in his house for 60 years and had never been flooded until now," said Hoge.

In Welch, WV, the library - which had never flooded before - took in two feet of water.

What do people need and what's the best way to help? Response leaders agreed that cash donations are better than material goods. "We don't have storage space," said Hatfield. "We got so much stuff from the last flood. Donate money instead."

The Salvation Army made a specific request for toilet paper and non-perishable food.

And Hoge added he could see a future need for building supplies and household items. With cash donations, these items could be purchased since "money is flexible," he said, adding there is a "huge need for bridge builders."

Large quantities of donations could likely be used only "if it's new and it comes in a tractor trailer and doesn't need to be sorted and sized," said Hale, who also agreed that cash is best.

Hatfield said that monetary donations will be used by long-term recovery groups to help support people long after short-term relief is over. "If you donate money it's not necessarily going to go out there right now," said Hatfield, "because right now FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the (American) Red Cross are trying to meet people's needs. We are the long-term. We're encouraging people to get the money they're eligible for because we'll be here after FEMA and the Red Cross are gone."

The question is, Hoge said, will people accept help? "There is a real pride factor here."

Another burning question is where can people rebuild their homes in terrain where cliffs and mountains make construction impossible. There is no excess housing in the region to hold people who want to relocate, said Hoge.

As officials in the region consider solutions, "this flood has helped push people to the point where we have folks seriously considering other options," he said.

Buyouts or relocations will help people avoid yet another flood disaster, he said. "From the collective voluntary agency side that changes how you might provide assistance. People might be saying, 'okay, I'm not going to spend that much time fixing that house.' "

Meanwhile clouds are building again over the region, and forecasters said the area could get a significant amount of rain over the weekend. "Folks are very nervous," said Hoge.

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