BIRCH RIVER, W.Va. — Malisia and Harold “Junior” Holmes believe their decision on June 22, 2016 was an act of God.
That was the day they had chosen to visit friends and family in Ohio. They weren’t in Birch River (population of 107 in 2010) when the unincorporated Nicholas County community suffered extensive damage from flood waters.
“The Lord blessed us,” Harold Holmes said. “He took us out of here. We weren’t here.”
His wife Malisia concurred–if flood waters were going to claim something, better it be their home of 44 years while they were out-of-state.
“When the water got up, we had never left our home because we had never flooded,” she said. “And if we had been here during the flood we would have been at the house.”
That, she said, was a fortunate turn of events at a time when fortune had seemingly abandoned the residents of Birch River. The two, who live on Holmes Avenue, believe they would have likely needed a water rescue in the event they had been home on June 23. Instead, they learned about the floods on social media. When they returned to their long-time home, it was the swamp-like remnants of a post-flood world.
“Mud everywhere,” Malisia Holmes said. “You can hardly drive through the streets. There was moving debris. The dumpster from the Go-Mart was over here by the intersection. There was cars washed in by the fire department.”
There’s a common theme when talking to any survivor of the June 2016 floods: it had never been this bad before. That was a common take among Birch River residents. Where had all that water come from?
“I’ve been here for 33 years, and I ain’t seen nothing like it,” Rebecca Key, a volunteer at the local post-flood supply hub at the former Coffman Metals garage, said Monday.
The Holmes’s story, fortunately, has a happier ending then most–and they recognize that. They were eligible to receive the maximum amount of aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). They described the home they eventually built on their land as comfortable, but much smaller then what they lost. And even with the new home, most of what they lost was irreplaceable. In total, what they received in aid after the floods was a fraction of what they lost–likely far less than half the total value of the home, vehicles, and valuables in the house.
“It’ll take another two years for me to get back to where I was, at least, at my age,” Harold Holmes said.
But Harold, a retired construction worker, and Malisia, who works at WalMart, recognized an important part of their story–they weren’t forced to leave.
“We have one neighbor across from us that stayed,” Malisia said. “[Harold] had brothers, a niece who lived over there. They moved away.”
In the wake of last June’s historic flooding, there’s often a common refrain in Birch River; not everyone is getting what they need. The residents there, like the Holmes family, aren’t entirely sure why or how that’s happening. They said they continue to hear stories about “someone living up the holler” who is still struggling in the flood’s aftermath.
What they, and others, do recognize is the help they’ve received from volunteers. Beverly Workman, who also volunteers at the supply hub in Birch River (just a short walk from the Holmes’s home), said life is beginning to return to normal. That’s why she volunteers her time at the supply hub, which is was run by the Greater Nicholas County Long Term Flood Recovery Committee.
“They were really, really good–the people out of state–were really good to the people of West Virginia,” Beverly Workman said.
Workman lost her mobile home in the flooding, but also received assistance in replacing her former home.
“We’re in good shape now,” she said. “I think we’re okay now. I believe we will [return to normalcy].”
But normal might be good enough anymore, according to Harold Holmes. This was the first flood that really woke the Birch River natives to the danger they face in their quiet little community.
“FEMA told me to go up two foot (sic) with my house,” he said. “I went four.”
That, Harold hopes, will make all the difference.