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West Virginia flood survivor thrives by helping others

CLENDENIN, W.Va. — The story of Susan Jack was pitched to me as that of someone who has been fighting to recover from last summer’s flooding herself while also putting every effort into helping others.

Just a few minutes into our visit, I could see why.

Susan Jack, right, talks with Tina and Tommy Myers, who also lost their home in the flood. They were bringing her a bedframe. She was giving them advice about heating their home this winter as it is renovated.
Susan Jack, right, talks with Tina and Tommy Myers, who also lost their home in the flood. They were bringing her a bed frame. She was giving them advice about heating their home this winter as it is renovated.

When I arrived at the door, she was on a cell phone call, giving a former resident advice about where donated winter clothes could do some good. Not long after that call ended, she needed to excuse herself again. Neighbors who had been displaced from their flooded home had pulled up outside to donate some bed railing. In response, Jack was giving them advice about how to keep their home warm in the winter while renovations continued.

“You don’t need it warm and cozy,” Jack said to the couple, Tina and Tommy Myers. “You just need it warm enough to keep the floors from warping.”

The rest of our long talk about what she and her community have been through since the June 23 floods was also filled with vital but telling interruptions: Jack’s father arrived at midday to take high school sophomore Jodi Cameron, Jacks’s daughter, to school; a neighbor arrived to offer Jack a carton of fresh eggs; a young neighborhood boy came to the door, offering to mow the grass on an unseasonably warm day.

“We’ve all been through it, man,” Jack said by way of explanation. “I’m telling you.”

A former Elkview resident, Elizabeth Swecker, is who suggested getting in touch with Jack. Swecker now lives in Northern Virginia but has tried to help her old community since the June flood ruined so many homes and lives.

“It’s just devastating what has occurred,” Swecker said. “It’s almost like they’ve been forgotten. If this occurred in D.C. it’s like it would be fixed immediately.”

Swecker’s mother taught at Herbert Hoover for 50 years, and Swecker graduated from that high school — now a ruined mess — a couple of years behind Jack. The flood and social media brought them back together.

“The efforts she’s made has been incredible. Here’s somebody — she’s not working, she hasn’t asked for a dime from anyone, and what she’s done is pretty unbelievable.

“The highlight of that is there’s hope, and Susan has certainly brought that to some people. Now’s the time a lot of people do feel forgotten. There’s hope there, and Susan’s bringing that to light.”

Susan Jack is an extrovert, a former college athlete who played basketball, volleyball and softball at Garrett College and University of Charleston. She’s a bowhunter and a single mom. She has a master’s degree in industrial engineering. And she hadn’t thought she’d stay in West Virginia much longer than the end of last summer: “I was on my way out.”

For several years, she had run her own company, Appalachian Milk Soap, which made small handcrafted natural soap. The recession hit and she sold the majority interest. Then she worked for an insurance company as a safety consultant but lost the job last January in a downsizing. She took a management job at Clearon in South Charleston that would be short-term if a big contract couldn’t be renewed. It wasn’t, so Jack was looking at June 30 as her last day.

Jack aimed for Ohio. She and Jodi were living in a two-bedroom apartment in Elkview along with Sissy, their Yorkie/Chihuahua/Dachshund mix, getting ready to make their move. Almost all their belongings –refrigerator, bedroom suits, chairs, couches, photographs, scrapbooks — were in four modern, climate-controlled storage units.

The day of the flood, it rained and rained and rained. Jodi had an early morning volleyball practice. Her team had lunch at a local Mexican restaurant, and Jack picked her up. They went back to the apartment, and the heavy rain kept on pounding. By early evening, Jack heard a roaring sound and walked out the back door. What she heard and saw was water rushing over the road outside. She was amazed and frightened by what she saw and posted a video of the scene to Facebook.

Her Ford Edge sport utility vehicle was outside, but the driveway was gone. Jack and Jodi went out into the rain and started stacking rocks to give the SUV some solid traction. They estimate taking three hours to get out. “I was scared,” Jodi said. “I didn’t know what to think.”

They didn’t know it, but this was just the start of a night-long odyssey that involved pounding rain, rising waters and extended family.

They decided they should drive to check on their Aunt Ruth, who is in her 90s. Their cousin Shirley, Aunt Ruth’s daughter, also lived nearby. And Cousin Jimmy Marcum, Shirley’s son, was expected soon. He had rushed from work to check on his four dogs, who had been crated in his basement.

Jack and Jodi pulled in about the same time Jimmy did. He got out of his own vehicle, covered in mud. Shirley went to hug him, and he broke down: “It’s all gone mom; all gone.” He’d slogged through mud to his flooded home and discovered two dogs alive and two drowned.

These stairs led into Aunt Shirley's flooded basement.
These stairs led into Aunt Shirley’s flooded basement.

The family thought the worst was over and they were settling down for the night at Ruth’s. Some snoozed on couches. Shirley went to check on her own home not far away. After while she rushed back in to announce that her own finished basement was flooding. Jack and Jimmy returned to Shirley’s house with her and peered past the basement door. “I’ll never forget looking down the staircase,” Jack said. “Water was shooting through the door.” They braved the stairs, shut off the power box and waded through to grab lamps, pillows, televisions, anything that could be moved to the floor above.

When they left, they saw another disconcerting sight. A wall of water appeared to be flowing like a blob up the road. “Oh my gosh, we’ve got to go,” Jack recalled saying.

Susan Jack and Aunt Ruth
Susan Jack and Aunt Ruth

They sprinted back to Ruth’s house, roused everyone and, with pillows and pajamas, went out into the rising water to the cars. Ruth’s walker was submerged. Eventually she had to be picked up and carried to the waiting vehicle.

This was about 2 a.m.

With most roads unpassable, they drove up an old road over a hill and wound up at the GoMart convenience store off the Elkview exit with what seemed like about 300 or 400 other people. Jack, Jodi, Ruth, Shirley and the two dogs that had been saved from Jimmy’s house were all in the Ford Edge. Ruth was getting uncomfortable so they headed out twice to try for the comfort of friends’ homes. Both times they had to turn back.

By 6 a.m., when the sun came up, it was clear that local landmarks like Smith’s Foodfair and the Post Office were under water, and the water was still coming up. “You’re so stressed at that point,” Jack said. “We just sat and watched the water rise. Soaking wet. Exhausted.”

They finally hit the interstate and drove to another aunt’s house in Hurricane, went to bed in the same clothes they’d been wearing and slept for five hours.

On June 24, as the water started to recede but as the town baked with mud, Jack and Jodi drove back in. They stopped off and picked up Sissy from their powerless apartment. Black helicopters flew overhead. News crews were starting to come in. “It was like being in a war zone.” She posted photos and videos on Facebook so others could see. “I could not believe what I saw. Just imagine driving into your town after a nuclear bomb went off. I’m a realist. It had to do something to you. It kind of broke you a little. It was like a death.”

The flood was receding and Jack, Jodi and Sissy stayed at a friend’s house, but the work was just beginning. A couple of days in, after the initial shock was subsiding, Jack wondered about her belongings in the storage unit. When she opened the first lock, she couldn’t raise the door. It turned out a refrigerator had floated and settled, blocking the entrance. She went back later with friends, got the doors open and sorted everything into “throw away” and “keep” piles. Jodi watched her muddy bedroom suit have to be thrown on the dump for disposal.

For weeks at a time, Jack stayed out in her community, helping people muck out their homes. There were widespread reports of looting. Jodi’s school, Herbert Hoover, was considered damaged beyond repair.

“As long as I’m busy, I don’t worry about a thing,” Jack said.

She would wander around, approaching homes and asking people if they had power restored yet. Power was the main thing people needed to be able to run Shop-Vacs for their cleanup. Jack got to know a lot of her neighbors that way, people she had never met before and wouldn’t have met otherwise. A typical conversation went like this:

“Do you have power?”

“No, ma’am, I don’t.”

“Well, I’m here to help.”

“Bless your heart.”

Jack would call back to the union electricians local and provide the address. Then she’d pull out a post hole digger to prep the site. Sometimes she would have a pole along with her, but sometimes she would spread the word for someone to pick one up and bring it. Along behind her would come an electrician for the technical work.

She reached out to Methodist Church outreach ministries for help. She used her Facebook like a dispatcher, identifying needs and putting out calls for supplies. If people needed Lowe’s or Home Depot gift cards, she could get them. If they needed to borrow pressure washers, she’d make sure they got there.

It was on a call-out for a pressure washer that she found the Clendenin house where she and Jodi now live. It had been flooded, and the owner had it on the market even before the flood. Now the owner was very motivated to sell.

“I am just done,” the owner told Jack.

“Really?” Jack said. “Do you mind if I take a look around?”

Jack’s parents helped her buy the house. And that settled the matter. She was staying after all.

Susan Jack shows off some of the living room furniture that is new to her. Daughter Jodi Cameron rests on a 20-year-old couch set that is new to their home.
Susan Jack shows off some of the living room furniture that is new to her. Daughter Jodi Cameron rests on a 20-year-old couch set that is new to their home.

Now Jack’s own new home needed a lot of work. It’s still being rewired. It needed new drywall. They’ve been sleeping on mattresses without frames or box springs. Their furniture was destroyed so they bought a couple of chairs from a hotel. Just last week, they got a white leather sofa set. It was 20 years old but still in good condition. “Getting these was like a gold mine,” Jack said of the couch set.

The kitchen needs to be redone. About all Jack has right now is a microwave, coffee pot and griddle. She apologetically offered a cup of black coffee, no sugar or cream available: “I’m not the hostess with the mostess at the moment.”

Jodi has gone back to school and still plays on the volleyball team. Herbert Hoover students go to Elkview Middle School in the afternoons while the middle school students take classes there in the mornings. The high school students also alternate their classes — odd days and even days. “One this schedule everyone has started to procrastinate a little more,” Jodi said. “We like to procrastinate in the first place.”

Jodi, a sophomore, hopes a new school is built in time for her class to graduate from it. She has increasing doubts about that possibility, though.

Now that Jack has decided to stay, she has her own goals. She wants to take her newfound love of her community and combine that with her entrepreneurial spirit. Her vision would rebuild Clendenin into an outdoors playground — with community members riding around town in golf carts, with an equestrian center that way and with an ATV trail  in the opposite direction. Out on the Elk River — kayaking, canoeing and tubing. There would be dining and lodging, bed and breakfasts.

She realizes Clendenin is up against the odds, but it was struggling even before the flood too. Now it has a chance for a new start. Besides, right now property there is cheap and primed for investment.

“We are capable of a lot more than we realize,” she said. “The best jobs I ever had in my life were ones where I went into a train wreck and tried to fix it.”

She waved her hand around at her new screened in porch, where the midday sun was shining through. “This porch is going to become rebuilt Clendenin central.”

Susan Jack's vision for Clendenin includes an entrepreneurial spirit.
Susan Jack’s vision for Clendenin includes an entrepreneurial spirit.

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