CLENDENIN, W.Va. — Off the Clendenin exit of Interstate 79, a pile of debris near the bottom of the exit ramp onto U.S. Route 119 serves as a stark reminder.
Six weeks ago Thursday night, the northern Kanawha County town was under water as the Elk River violently overflowed its banks causing a flood event that hadn’t been seen in its residents’ lifetimes.
The high water killed six in Kanawha County, damaged several dozen homes and businesses, ruined roadways and forced the closure of two schools.
Three fortnights later, the river is quiet and peaceful, and the community has cleaned up considerably, progressing into the early stages of a lengthy rebuild. How long?
“It’s going to be years,” said Tammy Stevens. “I’m not stupid. It ain’t going to be months, it’s going to be years. Because it’s wiped out everything.”
Stevens said she lived on higher ground and was luckier than most, describing the flood for some of the town’s residents who lost their homes completely as “a death with no flowers and no food.”
Still, Clendenin now looks markedly different than it did in the weeks following the flood. Trash and debris has been cleaned up neatly into piles, the Dairy Queen that was turned a pile of rubble was simply just the sign with a banner reading “Don’t Stop Believing.” And some businesses, like Elk River Boxing Club on Main Street, are back open.
“A lot of our kids are from around here. They count on us. We wanted to be here for them,” owner Robert Fletcher said describing his motivation to reopen as quickly as possible. “We had a lot of help. That’s why we’ve been able to get back sooner than some people.”
Fletcher said he made good on his promise this week to be back open by the beginning of August.
“We started classes back this past Monday, August 1st,” he boasted.
State House Speaker Tim Armstead said some residents are still displaced, but was impressed with the progress Clendenin had made.
“The day the water went down, people started this process,” he said. “Truly, it’s the people who live here in Clendenin that want to put this community back together, and they’re going to do what it takes to do it. You’re already seeing people moving back into their houses, not everybody. There’s still a lot of work to do. It’s going to take months, if not years, to get everything put back together.”
As residents work to move back into and replace their residences, frustration and confusion with the FEMA process has been common.
“I’ll tell you, FEMA’s a joke. I know it’s nothing somebody else ain’t said,” Stevens said bluntly. “They’re either going to shut you down or throw you out. If you got a trashy trailer you’ll get $30,000. If you got a good home, they’re going to give you little to nothing or another mortgage at a low interest.”
Stephanie Nottingham agreed, saying that almost everyone is confused.
“It’s all stand-still waiting for assistance, help, what the word is; whether you can rebuild, you’re condemned; you have to lift your home. If you’re in a flood zone now everything has changed and it changes, it seems like daily.”
Frustrations with the FEMA process aside, Nottingham was sure Clendenin would rebuild because of its strong, hard-working and caring residents.
“Everybody’s come together. It’s been amazing. The people in this town…I would say there’s nothing like it anywhere.”