Stephanie Stiltner's home in Hurley was damaged but is being rebuilt, unlike several nearby houses. “We have issues here, but my neighbors' houses aren't even standing," she said. "To walk back off that hill and see nothing where stuff had been all your life, it is just -- I don't even have a word for it. Devastating is the best word I’ve got." Photo by Lakin Keene.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 10 a.m. Dec. 3 with comments from Sen. Tim Kaine.

Members of Virginia’s congressional delegation on Thursday asked for President Joe Biden’s support as the state appeals a federal decision denying financial help to Buchanan County residents whose homes were damaged or destroyed by flooding and mudslides in August.

“To ensure a fulsome recovery for this community, we urge your full and fair consideration of Virginia’s appeal for Individual Assistance for our constituents in and around Hurley,” Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, both Democrats, and Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, wrote in a letter to Biden.

More than 7 inches of rain fell on parts of the community of Hurley on Aug. 30, destroying dozens of homes and damaging many others. One person died. (Read our previous coverage here.)

Recent estimates pegged the value of the properties that were affected at more than $5.7 million, although county officials warned that the tally was likely to rise as more assessments were completed.

Many of the affected homeowners did not have flood insurance, and even those who did soon discovered that their policies were unlikely to cover much of the damage, particularly the destruction caused by mudslides.

While Buchanan County will receive federal assistance to help pay for infrastructure repairs and cleanup, the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied the state’s request for financial help for individual homeowners. 

In a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam, a FEMA official wrote that the impact of the disaster “was not of such severity and magnitude” to warrant the assistance. 

Local officials, who worked with the state to appeal the decision, have said that FEMA’s decision-making process is opaque, and several speculated that rural areas like Buchanan County are at a disadvantage when assessments of severity are made because fewer homes are affected than in more populated regions.

Kaine on Friday said it’s not uncommon in his experience to see FEMA grant a major disaster declaration, which opens up assistance for local governments, but not provide individual assistance. 

He thinks such decisions are probably based on either the agency’s assessment of the amounts of individual damage or the number of people who were affected.

“But just because it’s not widespread affecting tens of thousands of people doesn’t mean it is not catastrophic for a smaller group of people,” Kaine said. “I’m glad that Governor Northam has initiated the appeal, and obviously Senator Warner and Congressman Griffith and I are very glad to support it.”

Even if FEMA help does come through, the most any homeowner could receive is $36,000, and most awards are much smaller, local officials have said. 

To help fill the gap left by FEMA and insurance denials, local efforts have collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations, and scores of volunteers from across the state have worked to rebuild any homes that can be salvaged.

In Thursday’s letter to Biden, Griffith, Kaine and Warner noted that FEMA funds could help pay for “temporary housing, emergency home repairs, uninsured and underinsured property losses, and other critical needs.”

“The unlocking of IA [Individual Assistance] for the residents of Hurley would go a long way towards helping this community recover from this extreme weather event.”

Staff writer Markus Schmidt contributed information to this story.

Megan Schnabel

Megan Schnabel is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach her at megan@cardinalnews.org.