Five years ago tomorrow, torrential rains produced widespread flooding in West Virginia. Up to ten inches of rain over a 12-to-18-hour period sent creeks and rivers roaring over their banks.
Mud and debris-filled flood waters killed 23 people, hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged, roads and bridges were washed away.
The National Weather Service described the rain and flooding as a 1,000 year event. President Obama quickly declared Kanawha, Greenbrier and Nicholas Counties as disaster areas. More than a dozen additional counties would later be included.
The magnitude of the damage and the loss was overwhelming. Thousands of shell-shocked West Virginians were faced with the staggering challenge of cleaning out foul-smelling mud and ruined furnishings while also trying to meet the necessities of daily life.
Fortunately, most of the flood victims learned quickly that they were not alone. Community spirit is strong in West Virginia. Neighbors pitched in to help each other. Strangers started showing up in flood-damaged regions to volunteer.
Faith-based organizations popped up seemingly out of nowhere to provide a free meal and a comforting shoulder. The state swung into action with relief help. National Guard troops and their equipment became a helpful and reassuring presence.
Senator Stephen Baldwin (D-Greenbrier) was a guest on Talkline yesterday. When I asked him what he recalled about the flood five years ago, he said two things: The stagnant, sour stench left behind by the flood waters, but also the willingness of people to pitch in.
“There was a period for about two months afterward where all we did was muck-out houses and I will never, forget that smell,” Baldwin said, but he added, “I’ll also never forget how many people came to help.”
Clendenin was hit hard. Resident Susan Jack said on Talkline that after the flood, the first challenge was to just get over the shock. “We had no water, no power, no cable, nothing. It was like being blown back into the dark ages,” she said. “It was absolute misery.”
“If not for these groups that came in to help us, I don’t know what we would have done,” Jack said.
Self-interest is a powerful motivator of human behavior. We are wired for survival and so our actions often reflect what is in our own interest. However, we are also driven by altruism, the act of helping someone else even if there is no benefit—and possibly even a loss—to us.
Maybe those conflicting motivations co-exist within each of us. But it is reassuring when altruism prevails. The faithful know the Bible’s many references to the necessity to help others, most notably Jesus’s commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”
But religiosity is not necessary for generosity. Many people who have never set foot in a church still have a strong sense of community and a moral compass that guides them to help those less fortunate than themselves.
Whatever the motivation, when that terrible flood hit, West Virginians, as well as others from outside the state, stepped up to help in so many ways. So, the memory of that tragedy five years ago is not just about devastation and loss; it is also about generosity and gratitude.