WV finds 'invisible' damage

Angela Niven keeps finding more families living without heat or hot water.

BY HEATHER MOYER | WHEELING, W.Va. | December 23, 2004

"We often go to the local churches first in these communities."

—Les Davidson

Angela Niven keeps finding more families living without heat or hot water - the result of major flooding more than three months ago.

"We're still in the initial stages of this. We're just now starting the long-term process," said Niven, northern regional director of Catholic Community Services of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese.

When Hurricane Ivan's remnants swept through Wheeling and West Virginia's northern panhandle area in September, many people were unprepared for flooding.

To help the hundreds of families whose homes were severely damaged, Catholic Community Services and more than 35 other churches and social service agencies formed the Northern Panhandle Long-Term Recovery Committee (NPLTRC). The current caseload of NPLTRC includes more than 170 cases across the four northernmost counties of West Virginia, said Niven, who also serves on the executive board of NPLTRC.

The team recently hired two caseworkers to identify more families in need. Caseworker Les Davidson said he is visiting small, rural communities of families unable to come to Wheeling for help.

The hardest hit areas around Wheeling include Kings Creek, Valley View, McKinleyville, and Short Creek.

"We often go to the local churches first in these communities," explained Davidson. "I expect the caseload to increase as we get out there and as word of mouth spreads about us. We're trying to fill the gaps that other local agencies aren't able to fill."

The majority of the NPLTRC caseload is families that live below the poverty line.

Major needs for the flood families include furnaces, hot water heaters, and other large appliances. A lot of the damage to homes is not visible from the outside, added Davidson. "That's one thing I've noticed so far - you can walk up to a home and it'll look fine on the outside, but the inside will be all torn out."

Caseworkers are also paying attention to emotional needs the families might have. A state agency is coordinating counseling, and Davidson said both NPLTRC and the state would refer cases to each other.

The recovery team is also receiving significant assistance from the West Virginia chapter of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (WVVOAD) and other disaster relief agencies active in southern West Virginia. In the past three years, West Virginia has experienced seven federal disaster declarations due to flooding - all in the southern area of the state. That experience is now helping the southern agencies advise NPLTRC on how to coordinate long-term recovery.

"They've been very helpful. The southern region is so experienced at this that they have the process down to a science," Niven said.

Davidson and Niven hope that by spring, the recovery will have moved forward enough to bring in volunteer rebuild teams. One of the major issues right now, though, is mold. "These houses haven't been heated since September, some may have to be torn down entirely," Davidson said. "We'll probably see more folks who just tried to bleach their walls come forward later."

And besides a lack of heat, another issue facing families this winter is food supply. Niven explained that many of the families in smaller communities rely on canned food from their vegetable gardens that washed away in the floods. Others rely on meat garnered from hunting, yet the flooding destroyed the freezers holding the meat.

Driving through some of the flood-affected neighborhoods one afternoon, Niven pointed out the hardest-hit homes. In one neighborhood, mobile homes have walls missing and pushed up against each other.

"We've been finding that a lot of these folks let their flood insurance lapse because they couldn't afford it," explained Niven.

"They were having to choose between food, medication or insurance. Many of them live paycheck-to-paycheck."

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