Love floods Appalachian village

BY SUSAN KIM | HURLEY, VA | June 29, 2002

"It was painful when we heard news of the flood."

—D.C. Veale, Glen Mar UMC

When Knox Creek tore through this tiny Appalachian town, a MD church congregation some 450 miles away began to grieve beside the flooded families.

The damage caused by the May 2 flood in Hurley, VA is so devastating it's easier to count the homes that went undamaged. Two men died and 98 families -- nearly the entire community -- were left homeless. Hundreds of cars were washed away.

The tiny town -- tucked away in the mountains that border Virginia and Kentucky -- sustained more than $50 million in damage.

Glen Mar United Methodist Church -- a 10-hour drive away in Ellicott City, MD -- watched the disaster unfold with heartbreak.

"It was so painful when we heard news of the flood," explained D.C. Veale, Glen Mar's youth minister. Veale had brought volunteers to Hurley two consecutive years before the flood.

Now this week he's back in the mountains with a crew of 48 youth and adults, visiting what he calls "his second home" and lending a helping hand.

While working in Hurley this week, the Glen Mar crew has been joined by many other faith-based groups, including representatives from the Church of the Brethren, Mennonite Disaster Service, Adventist Community Service, and many others.

Shortly after the spring floods hit, Church World Service and several of its partner denominations coordinated a multi-denominational response that's going strong.

Now love is flooding into Hurley -- and back out, too, said Veale. "People are amazing here," he said. "We have been loved on and affirmed for our presence."

Volunteers this week in Hurley have been putting new roofs on homes, painting inside and outside, digging ditches for people rewiring their electricity, and building ramps for disabled people. They are also clearing lots for mobile homes. In Hurley, there is a serious shortfall of apartments and rental housing compared with the number of people who need temporary housing.

Driving in Hurley is an exercise in patience, said Veale. "The roads are always blocked by stuff like backhoes trying to clear away debris."

In Hurley -- and the towns that surround it -- many residents' driveways run across the river. Some are concrete, some are boards, and some are shared by more than one family. When the flood hit, 102 of these private bridges were washed away, blocking access for some 235 households. Another 19 county bridges were destroyed.

This week, some residents were still getting into their homes by driving through the streambed, where they've piled dirt and gravel so their car tires will grip.

Electricity still goes out for six hours at a time for many households in Hurley as repair crews continued to replace the snarl of damaged equipment.

As the town struggles with recovery, it is also battling what the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has found to be "ineligible debris removal."

Buchanan county officials have complained that a contractor -- DRC, Inc. -- being overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville district office has been focused on removing rock and mud instead of trees, drainpipes, and other debris littering area streams. County officials also alleged that DRC appeared to be dipping dirt out of hillsides and digging down well below actual silt and rock debris levels on private property and in streams.

The contract between the Army Corps of Engineers and DRC is based on tonnage of debris removed. FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers halted work on the contract last weekend for "the removal of ineligible debris."

The county will now be in charge of debris removal. The corps and FEMA had allocated up to $5 million for the debris removal but the exact amount spent will not be known until the corps submits its final bill.

Another mound of debris awaiting cleanup is Hurley's D.A. Justus Elementary School, which was razed after the flood. FEMA ordered the building torn down because it was not repairable. Then asbestos was found in the building. County supervisors have continued to keep the debris wet to lessen the asbestos hazard, in accordance with instructions from Virginia emergency management.

County officials reported they had been monitoring the air quality in the area.

There is still an estimated 10,000 tons of debris at the school site. The county this week awarded a $588,000 cleanup contract to haul the debris to an EPA-approved landfill in Johnson City, VA.

Next week is the deadline for Hurley residents to apply for federal and state disaster assistance. More than 1,400 households throughout Virginia registered for assistance. After the state and federal deadline passes, people can still apply for funding for new and rehabilitated housing through a grant program administered by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.

While Hurley struggles to dig out, its neighboring town -- Grundy -- is learning flood mitigation. As part of a flood control project, Grundy is moving its Main Street to the opposite side of the river. The Army Corps of Engineers is overseeing the 18-month project, which was temporarily halted in May after a blasting accident sent 12-inch boulders punching through roofs and walls of Main Street businesses.

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