Locals Provide Disaster Assist After West Virginia Floods
Update: This story originally aired on NPR on June 26. Since then 10 counties have been declared federal disaster areas and the state of emergency has been lifted for 32. The death count has been updated to 23.
Marsha Larch lived in the same Clendenin, West Virginia, home for 50 years – ever since she got married at the age of 16.
“And I never seen water like this before in my life,” she said.
Larch stands on what used to be her back deck, looking out onto the river at least 35 feet below. On the night of the flood, Larch fled to higher ground in her camper as water rushed into her home. By the time the water receded more than a day later, stinking mud covered the surface of everything lying outside her home: items for recycling, furniture and even clothes that had washed out from the living room.
Drive down Larch’s street and you’ll see she is not the only one who has lost everything.
At least 24 people are confirmed dead and thousands are still without power and water after severe flooding devastated several West Virginia towns Thursday. Forty-four counties are still under a state of emergency. While FEMA has approved some disaster assistance, the vast majority of rescue, cleanup and support so far has been provided by the local communities.
“You’ll go from what looks to be normal, everyday houses just fine to complete destruction, just the foundations left with nothing but mud,” said Less Mitchell of the West Virginia FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Team.
“We’ve been doing wide area searches looking for any individual who may still be trapped within their structure,” he said.
FEMA approved aid to three West Virginia counties Saturday.
But for the past three days, most of the search and rescue and disaster relief has been provided by locals, including the West Virginia National Guard.
“So the challenge is you got folks that couldn’t get out who got injured, and we’re still trying to find a way with first responders, with us backing them out, just trying to get to people, but there was just water everywhere,” said Captain Will Hargis.
He pointed at a stop sign they used to gauge whether the guard’s low-medium tactical vehicles could clear the rising water. They couldn’t. He said they ended up using swift water rescue crews to access those trapped by the flood. Others were pulled from their homes by neighbors like Joe Snider who got folks out using fishing boats.
“Well, I got Betty Blackwell out, but I could carry her out. It wasn’t as deep, and this was deeper, and I had to put ‘em in a boat and bring them,” said Snider.
In Clendenin, Marsha Larch leaned over her deck rail and pointed at a support pole sliding slowly toward the river in the thick mud. It’s just a matter of time, she said, before the whole house collapses onto the bank.
“I’m abandoning it,” she said. “I can’t do nothing. You know…you’re retired you can’t…I worked for 36 years for the power company, and I retired and worked on my home and got it all ready and now it’s gone.”
Like most of the people affected by the floods, Larch said she never carried flood insurance; the water never came up high enough to need it.
Most of the water began to recede Saturday morning. Now all that’s left is a coating of mud that smells strongly of feces from overflowed sewer lines. Throughout the hardest hit towns, piles of mud-encrusted furniture littered front lawns like some kind of perverse yard sale.
Larch said she holds out hope that FEMA will help her rebuild her home. She said she had just finished renovations that she looked forward to enjoying in retirement.
In the meantime, she said, she will take the camper, what she can salvage from her home, and relocate.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Benedum Foundation.