WV pulls together

West Virginia disaster relief agencies are helping residents recover.

BY HEATHER MOYER | LOGAN, W.V. | June 29, 2004

"Unbelievably, there are still survivors with unmet needs out there from the 2001 and 2002 floods."

—Mary Virginia DeRoo

West Virginia disaster relief agencies are helping residents recover after devastating floods destroyed more than 100 homes and damaged hundreds of others one month ago.

Across southwestern West Virginia, 24 counties received federal disaster declarations due to heavy flood damage. Current damage assessments show that the flooding destroyed at least 135 homes. Some 443 homes sustained major damage. The majority of damages occurred in Logan and Mingo counties.

So far, more than 6,000 applications for federal aid have come in, according to Church World Service (CWS) Disaster Response and Recovery Liaison (DRRL) Joann Hale, who was recently in West Virginia helping establish long-term recovery contacts and distribute CWS aid.

"It still looks like a war zone," said Hale of the flood-damaged areas. "But the long-term recovery effort is looking good."

Hale said numerous agencies are active in this latest round of West Virginia flood relief, including Adventist Community Services, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, United Church of Christ, American Baptist Men, Southern Baptists, Catholic Charities, and Mennonite Disaster Service, and United Methodist Committee on Relief. Many of these agencies are members of the West Virginia Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (WVVOAD), which is working to coordinate relief work.

The West Virginia Council of Churches (WVCC) is also a major player in WVVOAD and the flood recovery process, setting up Regional Long-Term Recovery Teams that focus on multiple counties. Mary Virginia DeRoo, program director for the WVCC, said they recently switched to this strategy of covering multiple counties with one recovery team rather than having one team per county. The one team per county plan proved to be too spread out and challenging for recovery efforts.

"We have four of these teams covering 27 counties so far, but we may add another team soon," said DeRoo.

The difference between the number of counties the WVCC is assisting and the number of federally declared counties is an example of the WVCC helping with unmet needs, she added, as sometimes the recovery teams will get residents of non-declared counties asking for help. Just because a county doesn't get a federal declaration doesn't mean no one there suffered damages, she said.

West Virginia is no stranger to flood disasters. Last year, West Virginia received more federal disaster aid than any other state - some $60 million from four flood events. Many of the disaster relief agencies involved in the late May flooding are still helping survivors of repeated flooding in the previous four years - and much of the flooding hits the same areas.

"Unbelievably, there are still survivors with unmet needs out there from the 2001 and 2002 floods," said DeRoo.

One group meeting those needs is the West Virginia Ministry of Advocacy and Workcamps (WVMAW). Funded by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, WVMAW is continuing with its work on flood damages from 2003.

Bonnie Mallott, executive director of WVMAW, said the combination of their work on the 2003 repairs and the distance between their current work sites and the newly flooded regions had them deciding to just stick with the 2003 repairs for now.

"But the main point is that the work continues from last year's floods," said Mallott. "There's always a delay between immediate cleanup and the long-term repairs, and we're still in that lengthy process from the 2003 floods."

The United Methodist Committee on Relief sent an emergency response grant to the West Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church. Local volunteers are distributing UMCOR flood buckets to those most in need. United Methodists are also involved in planning a long-term recovery for the area, as well as in mitigation so that repeat flooding is not such a common occurence.

Hale said one positive effect of the repeated flooding is that the relief agencies are becoming experts at helping those affected. One consistent challenge, however, is the task of helping many elderly and under-educated residents apply for aid.

"Much of the communities that should be applying for aid cannot because it's an overwhelming process," explained Hale. "Many are elderly. Reading and writing skills may also be an issue for some residents. We need to find an agency that can help people fill out these applications.

"We want to do the best for those affected, and I think that involves helping with the application process."

Yet the number of relief agencies lending a hand still inspires Hale and DeRoo. DeRoo said she was happy to see Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) come in to discuss how they could assist with another flood issue.

"We have lots of little rivers and streams in West Virginia," said DeRoo. She explained that that fact means many areas have small bridges leading to small clusters of homes. When the flash floods rolled through, they took with them many of the bridges. The majority of the bridges are also private, which means the state won't repair or replace them.

On Tuesday, MDS members are meeting with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to discuss how they can help with bridge repairs.

That kind of teamwork has Hale feeling positive about the long-term recovery process while still noting some future needs.

"It's coming along well, but (the interfaiths) are going to need a lot of financial aid and a lot of volunteers," she said.

"We're doing our best as a faith community to keep it on track."

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