Three years ago, the lives of thousands of West Virginians were changed forever. After 24 hours of unrelenting rain, flash floods destroyed huge swaths of 44 counties. A 1,000-year flood event, meteorological experts called it.
Twenty-three people lost their lives. Thousands of homes were flooded, many of which could not be repaired. Hundreds of businesses, churches, schools and organizations were decimated. It was the most devastating event any of us have witnessed. Like many West Virginians, I spent months working with residents in the flood zone, cleaning up and rebuilding in communities.
It can still be so raw that it feels like it happened yesterday. People will ask, “How’s recovery going?” I tell them it depends on who you’re asking. For those who have been able to rebuild their lives, we pray they are healing and that life is returning to normal. For those who are still not whole, who do not have homes, whose children are going to school in temporary structures, the grief and anger are very real.
In the first year after the flood, we experienced a housing boom. Appalachian Service Project (ASP) built 62 new homes, Homes for West Virginia built 42, Mennonite Disaster Services built 11, and Samaritan’s Purse built eight. Hundreds more homes were renovated by church groups, Neighbors Loving Neighbors, ASP, The HOPE Project, and more.
For these folks, recovery worked as it should. For clients of government-funded housing programs such as RISE and HMGP, progress has been slow and frustration runs high. They tell us they feel forgotten, ignored, and heartbroken.
The West Virginia Commerce Secretary and other staffers lost their jobs last year because the RISE program wasn’t building houses. The West Virginia National Guard took over. In a year, they’ve provided 50 homes to clients, finished demolitions and reorganized disaster recovery. They have worked tirelessly to make up for time lost by state government disorganization. Yet, approximately 430 cases still need to be resolved.
They have told us 300 cases will be assigned to construction by July 2019. The vast majority of RISE families will require a new home. Building that many houses will take time, additional contractors, and unfortunately, as hard as we have tried to unwind it, more bureaucratic red tape.
It’s a similar story for clients of the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP). These folks have been on a waiting list since 2016. The WV Department of Homeland Security can recognize our numbers on their caller ID, because I’ve contacted them so many times about this program. They recently agreed to a request my colleagues and I made to fund everyone’s housing projects on the waiting list. We expect a detailed plan on how they will do that by July 1.
A question I am often asked is, “If another major flood happens, are we better prepared now than we were three years ago?” I tell them it’s not a matter of if, but of when. We must act now, with urgency.
We are better prepared thanks to the organizational work of groups like the Greater Greenbrier and Kanawha Long Term Recovery Committees and VOAD. We are better prepared in terms of state-level staffing, which was woeful in 2016. We will be better prepared when the funding is secured to upgrade the state’s Early Warning Flood System for our rivers and streams. We expect the funding this month thanks to the support of Governor Justice.
What we lack is a sense of cooperative urgency. Instead of turf battles, we need to cooperate, communicate and be on the same team. We will RISE or fall together.
In the aftermath of the flood, we all worked together. Our motto was: Whatever it takes. Somehow, that changed. We must get back there. We must be committed to doing whatever it takes to recover and mitigate future floods.
As the Song of Songs 8:7 says, “Mighty waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away.” We must not let this tragedy beat us. Rivers cannot wash away our respect for each other. Mighty waters cannot break our resolve. We will persevere in recovery for the sake of survivors and in loving memory of those we have lost. Whatever it takes.
Senator Stephen Baldwin is a local Presbyterian pastor who serves on the Flood Committee. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on social media @BaldwinForWV.