WV recovery tough


"We've run out of money."

—Kate O'Neil

For many in southern West Virginia, flood recovery has become an arduous journey. Church and volunteer groups are trying to restore a sense of normalcy, but with dwindling funds that task is becoming harder.

"We've run out of money," said Kate O'Neil, director of the Wyoming Country Flood Recovery Warehouse.

In May 2002, a flood swept through several counties, devastating homes, schools, businesses and land. Even before that disaster, flooding in May and July 2001 struck tragic blows to an area already struggling with the loss of its major economic provider: the coal industry.

"Last May, it was pretty bad, but July was more destructive to a good number of people," said O'Neil. "By far, we're still recovering from the July flood."

The warehouse is funded through religious and volunteer organizations and serves as a place for families to find supplies to help them rebuild their houses.

"We also try to help people get medical help," said O'Neil. "People have some down times, and we try to talk with them and help them in mental and spiritual ways as well."

Joann Hale, disaster response and recovery liaison with Church World Service, visited the area soon after the flood.

"One woman told me it took 20 minutes to wipe out the community," Hale said. "She ran across the street and up a hill. She just made it there before watching her neighbor's homes wash away."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, this region of West Virginia ranks first in the nation in unemployment, poverty and exodus. Unemployment rates in the area range from 40 to 60 percent and the median income is $14,000, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Hale said some parts of the area looked like a third-world country.

"A lot of the people are feeling this helplessness and hopelessness," she said. "For them to recover -- after they've been hit three times in less than a year-and-a-half -- they just start over again as if this is the normal way to live."

Despite the obvious physical and monetary impact these floods have had on residents, the emotional toll has been tremendous.

"When you're devastated, like these people were, to rebuild is wonderful but the spiritual and mental healing takes a long time," said Rev. Glen Kuhn, of Cook Memorial Baptist Church. "Every time it rains you hold your breath."

O'Neil said many people still feel afraid when it rains heavily, but they have a resilience that inspires her.

"They've come through other floods, they've come through fires, and they keep on keeping on," she said. "They've done their own repairs and their grit and stick-to-it-iveness and their resilience is just amazing."

But in spite of federal, state, faith-based and voluntary aide, not everyone is back to normal.

"This is really a long-term deal," said Kuhn. "We're into it two years, and I still look three years down the road to be trying to minister to the needs of the people."

Since 2001, volunteer work groups from across the country have helped build and repair flood-damaged homes. Habitat for Humanity, Catholic Charities, the United Way, American Red Cross and several other church, volunteer and community groups have provided over $1 million in free labor.

There were so many people in need that Cook Memorial Baptist Church renovated part of its buildings to house families who needed a clean place to stay while they worked on their homes. Eventually, they opened their doors to volunteer work groups.

"Over this summer we've just had a blast with mission workers who have come in from different parts of the country," said Kuhn. "It's been a blessing for us to be around them."

But work groups are still needed, and with a meager $22,000 left to work with, O'Neil isn't sure how she'll reach her goal of keeping the warehouse open until December.

"We've had many work groups that have come in," she said. "But we've run out of work groups. What we need is skilled work: plumbers, electricians ... we're at the point where it's the kind of work kids can't do."

Donations received at the warehouse total more than $255,000, and the amount of donated items -- things like windows, clothes, and appliances -- is estimated at more than $1 million. O'Neil said she's been overwhelmed with the generosity of others, but there's more work to be done.

"We have 106 active cases that still need building and restructuring done," said O'Neil.

Kuhn said the physical impact the flood has had on his community has been "tremendously hard" for people to deal with.

"When you look through your house -- something you built -- and there's water up to the first floor, the basement's covered ... and you lose material things ... the things they lost that can't be replaced weren't as bad as the things they lost that could be replaced ... it takes a toll," he said.

For the lucky ones who had retirement and life savings, that money has been used to rebuild their lives. But many people living in this rugged area didn't have many resources before the flooding.

"Some had to take their life or retirement savings and now look at the future and say 'boy, it's going to be twice as hard as it was,'" Kuhn said. "But some of the poorer people are double-struck: they didn't have much to begin with and lost everything. They have no way of recovering."

While the flooding devastated communities physically and financially, this tragedy has had a positive impact on the faith-based community.

"I think it has really strengthened people's faith," said O'Neil. "Seeing people of all denominations come through and trust that God is there is spite of it has been amazing."

Kuhn said he noticed the same thing.

"For Christians, it strengthened them and gave them a new purpose: to see the importance of what Christians can do working together as far as those in need," he said.

But Kuhn said he was disappointed with the effects of outreach to those in need.

"It's kind of like 'we appreciate what you've done, now let me get back on with my life and not be bothered by the church,'" he said. "Southwest Virginia is a tough place. But we've been able to introduce Christ in a new way, and I guess the important thing is the planting of the seeds."

According to Hale, those seeds are pretty important.

"These people need to be empowered," she said. "To know there's people out there who care for them ... they need to know the Christian values you were raised with. You just lose hope when you get hit so many times -- not only with disaster, but with unemployment, school districts, cutting costs -- it's just a sad situation there."

Wyoming Country Flood Recovery Warehouse

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Related Links:

West Virginia Cares

Church World Service


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