Five years after flood, residents see lingering challenges and increasing progress

Susan Jack escaped a roaring West Virginia flood to make a life.

A few months into recovery from that disaster, Jack was asked what kind of progress she envisioned in five years.

“Depending on who you ask, some people will tell you ‘Clendenin’s done. Forget it. Every single business was annihilated here.’ And there are some people who feel the town is done. I don’t believe in that. I don’t subscribe to that belief. I’m from here. I know the people here. We have a tremendous amount of talent here. We have hard-working people here, and we have people that love this town.

“So we’re going to get creative. We’re going to come up with some great economic development initiatives that are already in play right now, that we’re attempting to work on. And I think five years from now you’re going to see a completely different Clendenin. My vision is to make Clendenin the coolest little town in West Virginia, and we can do that. We’re tough people. In five years, we’ve got  this.”

That time is now.

This week, June 23, communities all across the state will mark five years after the flood with lingering horror but also pride in the miles they’ve come.

Jack will acknowledge that her town and its people are still recovering from the terrible 2016 flood. But she looks around and sees new people moving to the community, new restaurants, a brew pub coming in and visions of a recreation-based economy that takes advantage of the very river that nearly drowned the town’s hope.

“We’re well on our way, I’ll put it that way,” Jack said in the recent weeks leading up to the anniversary of the June 23, 2016 flood.

“It has been a very tough five years. It has been a brutal five years. But I think the people of our community have been starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And that’s something that river community needs. They’ve needed it for a long time.”

Across West Virginia, as five years pass, people will remember the flood with horror and sorrow. But they may also look around today and see progress — homes rebuilt, businesses started, lives continuing. It’s not over. The recovery continues. But those who are closest to where the water rushed are inclined to speak with optimism now.

That awful flood of June 23, 2016, was historic and devastating.

Between 8 to 10 inches of rain fell in a narrow window of 12 hours. The rushing water killed 23 people and destroyed houses.

Twenty-three people were killed. There were 1,200 homes destroyed, and thousands were without power, according to state assessments. The flood damaged businesses, roads and water and sewer systems.

“It was a disaster like none other,” Gov. Jim Justice reflected this month.

West Virginians spent the days and weeks following the disaster mourning neighbors who had died, mucking out homes that had been swamped and wondering when life would return to normal.

One of those was Justice, who was running for governor at the time. Justice, whose family owns The Greenbrier Resort, has spent his adult life in the area. The flood waters spared no one, raging over the resort property and carrying other people’s houses downstream.

Justice halted his campaign that summer, restarting it later, and opened The Greenbrier to those who needed someplace to stay.

“Over and over and over, I would go there, right in the middle of the campaign I completely suspended – I would go to Rainelle or wherever it may be – and I would try to help anybody and everybody we could.

“We opened the doors to The Greenbrier hotel and took anybody in that we could help. A bunch of folks walked in and they didn’t have shoes on. It was absolutely terrible. Just plain terrible.”

Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, a Democrat who is also from Greenbrier County, sees mixed progress in that region.

“It depends on where you go. If you go to White Sulphur today, you will see a community that’s more vibrant than it was pre-flood. Certainly the memories of those lost will never be forgotten, and they’ve been memorialized there in town. But you see a housing shortage. You see improvements in housing. You see new small businesses, activities for kids, outdoor recreation,” he said.

“Then you go to a town like Rupert or Rainelle and you see that the people that left that there are not jobs there for them, that infrastructure improvements that are much needed have not been made yet. So they continue to struggle and struggle mightily.”

Baldwin says his grandmother has lived through a hundred-year flood, a 500-year flood and a thousand-year flood, “and unfortunately there will be more West Virginians in that situation moving forward. So we have to have a sense of urgency about it, and we have to get structures in place to be prepared for it. Not just wait for the next time.”

When recovery began, leaders described a three-pronged process: housing and then infrastructure improvements followed by economic development.

West Virginia was awarded $149 million in Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Relief by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The housing effort, notably, got off to a slow start. For many months, RISE West Virginia  — which spearheads the flood relief effort — drew criticism as the federal government officially designated the state as a “slow spender” for its pace.

In recent months, the pace picked up.

At a May meeting of the Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding, state leaders described completing 296 housing projects through RISE West Virginia. To compare, in March 2020 the program had completed 140 houses.

The 102 housing projects that remain are all under contract, managers of the program said. And, of those, 79 have received notice to proceed and are now in construction phase. Leaders of the housing effort are hopeful that it could conclude by the end of the year.

Now it’s time to start broadening the focus from housing to greater strides in infrastructure and economic development, Baldwin said.

“The recovery efforts have begun and ended in housing and haven’t gone any further. And the populations have continued to decline pretty rapidly,” he said.

“People are moving out of the towns where they do not feel hope about the future. That’s very sad thing to me considering the history and legacy of these towns and of the potential they hold for the future.”

In Richwood, a Nicholas County mountain town hit hard by the flood, Mayor Gary Johnson sees progress and much more to do. Johnson sees four new restaurants and a couple of new Airbnbs, the lodging rentals. There’s a yoga studio. A new coffee shop.

Collins Hardwood, a big local employer in the timber region, closed down after the flood but was taken over by Appalachian Forest Products. “The hardwood industry is really good, so that’s a big help to us,” Johnson said. Richwood is part of a Mon Forest Towns marketing effort for the region.

“I think the last two years, everybody has become really optimistic,” said Johnson, a longtime judge in the county. “Our tourism has increased substantially. Everybody here is very optimistic about the future.”

But challenges remain. Richwood continues to try to straighten out its finances, following strain and controversy. “We were in such debt after the flood. We’re trying to work our way out of that,” Johnson said.

For years, residents have been focusing on rebuilding Richwood Middle and Richwood High, which were razed after the flood. The town needs to improve its sewer system and has applied to replace a wastewater treatment plant. And the town has about 18 buildings to be demolished, still damaged from water pouring down the mountain.

“The main problem with every rural community is to make us a desirable looking place to go. I think we need to get rid of all the dilapidated-looking buildings,” Johnson said.

“When you get down close to it, we’ve got to get our rural towns cleaned up so you have desirable places to go. That’s what we’re working on.”

The Elk River community in Kanawha County is also making progress but much more effort is ahead, said Delegate Dean Jeffries, R-Kanawha.

“Here in my area, the Elk River area, one of the big things we’ve been waiting on is Herbert Hoover High School to be completed,” Jeffries said. “That was big with our community. Your schools are the kind of glue that holds them together.”

Students have been going to school in portable classrooms, with some students spending all their high school years that way. But through tenacity, many of those students have experienced academic and athletic success. And now there’s visible progress on a new school under construction.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the administration, the teachers and the students of Herbert Hoover since this has happened. They have held in there and persevered. They have been a school of excellence. Almost every athletic team has competed for state championships. These kids have buckled down.”

“They haven’t been dealt the best of circumstances, but they keep overcoming it and moving forward. I can’t say enough about the staff and administration at the school. They deserve an incredible school, which is hopefully what they’re going to get.”

Jeffries, who is co-chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding, more broadly says the big struggle over housing seems to be nearing a conclusion. More work needs to be done on demolition of flooded buildings as well as on mitigation to avert future disasters, he said. He is pleased by the work of the newly-established State Resiliency Office.

“When the next flood does come — in West Virginia it’s not if, it’s when — when it does happen we’ll be better prepared and move quicker and more efficiently,” Jeffries said.

Jack, who lives just up the river in Clendenin, also sees advances. Her daughter, Jodi, had volleyball practice at Herbert Hoover’s the night of the flood. “Little did we know she was going to be one of the last people in the school.” Jodi, who graduated last year, was one of the students who spent her high school years without a traditional school building.

“Those were the kids that really went through hell. Their school was completely disrupted,” Jack said.

A new school gives some hope for the kids to come. So does a renewed emphasis on Clendenin as a recreation community, taking advantage of the river and terrain. The flood devastated the community, but it also required its reinvention, pressing residents to get more involved and to consider what their town could be.

“There’s a lot of people on the Elk River who really stepped up to try to save home – not their house — their home, their community. If you grow up on Elk River, it’s a family,” Jack said. “People are going to try to help people. Thank goodness.”

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