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Clay County Residents Have Mixed Feelings About FEMA Aid

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Ashton Marra
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West Virginia Public Broadcasting
On the right is the camper Tammy Rhodes, her husband and three children are living in after their house was destroyed by water rushing off of the hill in front of it. On the left is the lot where the Rhodes' homes once stood.

Thousands of West Virginians are still recovering more than six weeks after heavy rains caused historic flooding in southeastern parts of the state. State officials say finding housing is still one of the top priorities, but the need in some communities is changing.

In Clay County, for example, when asked if they had somewhere to stay, many flood victims told Federal Emergency Management Agency representatives they were staying with family, but didn’t realize how long those stays would last. Others were asked by FEMA workers if they would consider relocating, but without anywhere to safely store the few belongings they had left, many said no and are sleeping in campers or tents in their driveways.

FEMA officials say those two questions are they key to receiving housing aid beyond just monetary pay-outs. They are the key to being eligible for temporary housing units as well, some of which have started to be placed in the four eligible counties- Greenbrier, Kanawha, Nicholas, and Clay- but FEMA will not share specific information about how many temporary unit have been awarded or even how many have been requested.

The temporary housing program awards a mobile home to a family to live in for up to 18 months following a disaster declaration. Participants are required to search for a long-term housing solution while they stay in the mobile unit and check in with FEMA monthly about their progress.

The program i different than the individual housing assistance program, which awards grants to homeowners or renters impacted by natural disasters. That program is capped at $33,000 in awards per individual, but the temporary housing units can be awarded in addition to the grant.

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Credit Ashton Marra / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
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West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Pam Street, left, at a Clay County Commission meeting during which she was awarded $500 to help recover after losing her home in June's flooding.

Pam Street received the full $33,000 award from FEMA after her home, which sat on the banks of the Elk River in the Procious area of Clay County, was lifted off its foundation by high water. Street was able to find a rare rental property in the county so she won’t qualify for temporary housing, but she said her experience with FEMA was a fairly easy one.

“I’m one of the lucky ones I think. I mean, my total life is destroyed, but I’m still one of the lucky ones,” Street said after the Clay County Commission awarded her a $500 check during a July meeting. Lucky, she said, because she was able to find that rental property and has a job that allows her to pay for it.

Tammy Rhodes and her family were not as lucky. She, her husband and their three children are living in a camper next to the dirt lot where their home once stood. On a hillside, the home buckled in the center after rushing water spilled out of the culvert separating the lot from the main roadway.

FEMA denied all three of Rhodes’s claims.

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Credit Ashton Marra / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
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West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Tammy Rhodes visits with one of her dogs living in a makeshift shelter in her parents' back yard after rushing water from heavy rains destroyed her home.

“They said because my mom and dad had given us this part of the property to live on and because a title had never been switched or a deed had never been put in our name that they considered us renters,” Rhodes said as she stood next to the lot where her home once stood.

The Small Business Administration, another federal agency offering low-interest loans to flood victims, also said they couldn’t help because the property wasn’t legally hers.

“They finally told me that if there was a loophole that I had fell through it,” she said.

Rhodes and her family are now leaning on charitable organizations for aid, but flood victims who are still in need of federal assistance or whose housing situation has changed, can contact FEMA at 1-800-621-FEMA or online at disasterassistance.gov. The deadline to register for assistance is August 24.


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