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'We're still in crisis'

BY SUSAN KIM | MULLENS, WV | November 28, 2001

"We are still finding people in the hollers who haven't even done the basics when it comes to recovery."

—Kate O'Neil

The good days are days

when a truck shows up. It might contain some furniture,

or some drywall. It might bring cleaning supplies -- or

anything else that will help people in the West Virginia

mountains recover from the terrible floods that struck

July 8.

But trucks have been showing up a lot less often since

Sept. 11, said Kate O'Neil, president of the Mullens

Ministerial Association. "After the New York disaster, a

lot of donations dropped off," said O'Neil.

O'Neil is a Catholic nun who is helping coordinate an

interfaith response in southern West Virginia. Like many

local caregivers, she is caught between compassion for

those affected by Sept. 11 and a suddenly dwindled

response for people affected by an altogether different


"It is awful that Sept. 11 happened -- just terrible,"

said O'Neil. But she also sees many West Virginians who

have been living a nightmare since the summer.

"After Sept. 11 happened, somebody said to me, 'I guess

that's the end of your flood recovery work. I said, 'No!

We have to take care of these people.' "

The town of Mullens is in Wyoming County, where the

flood destroyed or badly damaged 75 percent of the

houses. Some 600 people were affected, many of them low-

income families who lived in modular homes.

Sixty out of the 62 businesses on Main Street in Mullens

were lost. Twenty of them reopened earlier this month.

Nearby Oceana lost half of all its businesses.

"We are still finding people in the hollers who haven't

even done the basics when it comes to recovery," said

O'Neil. "They wouldn't fill out the FEMA (Federal

Emergency Management Agency) forms. A lot of people here

don't trust the government. They're very independent and

they want to tough this out."

Now caseworkers trained by FEMA, in coordination with

Wyoming County Long Term Recovery, are going door to

door to gauge long-term need, said O'Neil. And they're

finding a lot of it.

Many faith-based disaster response groups have reached

out to help, O'Neil said, but there is still much to do.

And getting it done depends on getting donations.

"Cleaning supplies, blankets and sheeting, pots and

pans, household items, and vacuum cleaners" are the

first in a long list of items O'Neil can think of off

the top of her head. "Also, we do get some furniture but

it's never enough."

O'Neil is also looking for "someone who knows

construction" to help manage and oversee the efforts of

volunteers as they rebuild homes.

Cash donations to responding groups are the best way to

help people in West Virginia, said O'Neil, since Wyoming

County Long Term Recovery can use it for needs that

change as flood recovery goes on.

The types of building materials needed can change from

week to week, said Becky Farley, West Virginia center

director of the Appalachian Service Project (ASP), which

is working in partnership with Wyoming County Long Term

Recovery. "We have been buying building materials," she

said, " and the need has changed from sheet rock to

insulation. Or a lot of people are getting trailers, and

they need to purchase underpinnings."

Wyoming County Long Term Recovery meets at least once a

week to evaluate the ongoing recovery, swap

documentation of unmet needs, and - most important -

drum up resources to meet those needs. Right now the

group helps an average of 250 families every week.

Faith-based groups have been focusing on needs in

McDowell County, too. A volunteer team from Mennonite

Disaster Service (MDS) stayed onsite over Thanksgiving

to continue to rebuild and repair homes near the town of


MDS has also formed a partnership with Stop Abusive

Family Environments (SAFE), a local nonprofit in

McDowell County. SAFE caseworkers will identify flood

survivors who qualify for MDS assistance.

The two organizations broke ground on their first home

Nov. 1. "These partnerships create win-win situations,"

said MDS Executive Coordinator Tom Smucker. "By sharing

their knowledge of people and community, SAFE is

allowing MDS to focus on what we do best -- volunteer


MDS volunteers will assist flood survivors who qualify

for the permanent housing program that SAFE began in

March 1997.

"We are looking at the long-range plan of housing

development," said SAFE Executive Director Sharon Yates,

adding that MDS has a history of expertise in building.

The United Church of Christ is also planning to send

volunteer teams to repair and rebuild homes, said Jim

Ditzler, director of disaster response ministry for the

Ohio and West Virginia region. "There is an enormous

need," he said, adding that people's needs were

considerable even before the flood damage.

The dwindling of donations toward West Virginia's

recovery illustrates how the Sept. 11 attacks, though

they were focused in urban areas, shook the innermost

recesses of Appalachia, said Dick Krajeski, a Church

World Service disaster response facilitator based in

West Virginia. "The implication of the terrorist attack

is long and hard on local social service agencies.

"These organizations need support," he said. With it,

organizations like Wyoming County Long Term Recovery,

ASP, and SAFE can keep meeting people's long-term needs,

plus set up a structure to respond quickly to future


Within days after the flood, several hundred people

received tetanus shots at a doctor's office set up at

the ASP facility, remembered Glenn Runions, an extension

agent with community service development at the

University of West Virginia.

Then the university started sending a large truck, every

day, full of water pumps, gloves, and mucking tools. A

main warehouse was set up in Pineville from which

cleanup and relief materials could be distributed. From

there, ASP and Wyoming County Long Term Recovery set up

satellite warehouses. "Most of those are connected to an

extension service or to a faith-based group," said


"A lot of good is being accomplished," added O'Neil.

"Still, we go from morning to night. In some ways, we're

still in a crisis mode."

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