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In WV, what's flood damage?

BY SUSAN KIM | NORTHFORK, W.V. | November 4, 2002

"This was such a depressed community to start with."

—Leroy Bontrager

Hundreds of flood-damaged homes in West Virginia -- and hundreds more homes that were sub-standard before the floodwaters ever came. Telling the difference is hard, explained Leroy Bontrager, project director for Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), and with limited funds and human resources, it's sometimes painful to keep the focus on flood damage.

"This was such a depressed community to start with," he said.

For years the area has had high unemployment as well as a high population of elderly people.

Leroy's wife, Joyce, an MDS co-director, has been personally reaching out to family after family in the area, and agreed that many times it's hard to figure out whether damage was caused by the flood or by neglect before the flood. "That's been difficult for me personally," she said.

The couple lives in Indiana and will head home in time for Thanksgiving after spending two months in the mountains of West Virginia. They said leaving flood-ravaged McDowell County feels bittersweet.

Because so much has been accomplished but there is still much to be done, said Leroy.

In July 2001 floods devastated major areas of West Virginia and Virginia, destroying or damaging more than 3,000 homes. Then in May 2002 five inches of rain in less than one hour poured down in the same areas -- McDowell, Mercer, Mingo and Wyoming counties in West Virginia, and Buchanan and Tazewell counties in southwest Virginia. Another 3,000 homes were destroyed or damaged.

Since then MDS, along with many other faith-based groups, has been reaching out to those in need. The Bontragers and others have done everything from building new homes from the ground up to replacing porch steps.

Leroy Bontrager is quick to deflect any words of commendation onto West Virginia residents themselves. "One thing that has been amazing is the faith in God that people we're working for have," he said. "They're so grateful and they've been through so much."

It's also a fiercely independent community, added Joyce, and many people missed the deadline for receiving Federal Emergency Management Agency aid because they didn't want to ask for help or didn't think they needed it. "I met a lady two weeks ago. She had damage that absolutely needed to be addressed but she didn't say anything because she knew people who had it so much worse than her."

Sometimes MDS had to put one family before another because of home safety issues, though MDS teams eventually helped everyone, she said. "People really understood when we had to sometimes put their neighbor first," said Joyce.

The tight-knit community welcomed the Bontragers and other out-of-towners, she added. "It's really with mixed feelings I'm leaving here," she said. "We worked with good people and we served good people. I hope some of them come visit."

It's also hard to leave behind new homes that are nearly complete but need code approval from the county, Leroy Bontrager added. "We have two homes in the community of Keystone that are so close to completion. There are a number of things we need done but county officials haven't gotten around to it yet.

"The county doesn't have a lot of people. They've working as hard as they can. You just sort of grind your teeth. But it will happen."

One of the single biggest challenges is finding affordable housing outside of the flood plain, said Clay Phillips of Habitat for Humanity. Habitat partnered with the American Baptist Churches USA to break new ground on many homes in the region.

And Presbyterian Disaster Assistance issued a recent new appeal for volunteer teams who can travel to the area to help repair homes.

Many faith-based groups are working with McDowell Long-Term Flood Recovery. The committee is now concentrating on heating homes before chilly fall temperatures drop even more, said Christine Hatfield.

"Also, we're still finding people who have not addressed damage from July 2001," she said. "But recovery goes on, and a lot of people have worked hard."

The McDowell Mission, a United Methodist-based nonprofit, also coordinated work teams who did everything from mucking out basements to cutting through walls to carrying out furniture. Most teams come in the summer, said Luana Coleman, but 17 students from Notre Dame on their fall break were lending a hand this month.

In Wyoming County, several families are still living in travel trailers. Teams from the United Church of Christ and Church of the Brethren continue to work in that area.

Teams led by retired people -- like the Bontragers -- are often the most helpful, agreed response leaders, because they have flexible schedules and generally a lot of skills. More difficult roofing jobs, plumbing, and electrical work are often left to them.

As for the Bontragers, what will they do when they hit their home state again? "We'll just ooze for a couple weeks," said Leroy.

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