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.

Dear President Biden:

I know you’re a busy man, what with the supply chain all fouled up right in time for Christmas, inflation galloping along like prize racehorse in the Kentucky Derby, and the omicron variant threatening to run rampant, but if you can spare a moment, I’d like to call your attention the little town of Hurley, Virginia.

It’s down in the southwestern corner of Virginia, wedged in between West Virginia and Kentucky. You know, the coalfields. Appalachia. That part of Virginia you didn’t visit during the campaign and had no hope of carrying anyway. But let’s set that aside.

Back in August, Hurley got hit by a bad flood. I don’t mean a bad flood as in high water. I mean a bad flood as in mountains simply melting from the deluge, mudslides and rockslides wiping out houses, washing others downstream, that kind of bad flood. One person died and it’s surprising more didn’t, given how quickly the whole thing happened and how severe it all was. Dozens of homes are simply gone. Gone. Others may as well be because they were damaged beyond repair; so far, 48 have been officially marked as “destroyed.”

You probably didn’t hear about this at the time; not many did. Hurley’s pretty far back in the mountains and falls into one of those places we now call “news deserts,” although desert seems a strange phrase to use when discussing a flood. The local weeklies sure covered this but they don’t even have websites. Sometimes TV stations from Bristol and Bluefield covered things but it’s fair to say this story didn’t exactly draw national attention. The governor came to visit, as governors do, but Hurley’s plight didn’t really draw statewide attention, either. 

Now here we are, months after the storm, and things are still pretty bad. We had a reporter visit Hurley recently, and Megan Schnabel found Debbie Lester living in a camping trailer because her house is nowhere near fixed yet. She’s hardly alone. 

County officials are still totaling up all the damage. The damage to homes and buildings is put at $5.7 million but that figure is probably going to rise. And that doesn’t count all the other damage. Road repair and debris removal? $2.8 million. Restoring the water system? $8.5 million. Stream restoration? Maybe as much s $30 million. 

Now, here’s the kicker, and why I’m writing you: The Federal Emergency Management Agency recently turned down Virginia’s request for financial help for individual homeowners. FEMA – your FEMA, not to put too fine a point on it – told Gov. Ralph Northam that the disaster “was not of such severity and magnitude” to justify federal assistance. 

This is, shall we say, somewhat surprising. Hurley is not exactly Houston after Hurricane Harvey. But small places ought to matter, too, right? Buchanan County is not a well-to-do place. The median household income is about $32,000. About 21% of the county’s residents are officially living in poverty.

But FEMA says they’re on their own now. That just doesn’t seem right.

Our two U.S. senators – Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, you know them – and the district’s congressman – Morgan Griffith – have written you a letter asking you to intercede. “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 told Cardinal News last week.

He’s right, of course.

I’d like to think this kind of request would get approved, regardless of the politics. But let’s go ahead and talk about the politics here. 

If you do this, you will get no credit. None whatsoever.

You got 15.9% of the vote in Buchanan County, just 7.1% in the Hurley precinct.

If you run again, you probably won’t get even that much.

Sorry, that’s just the way it is.

You could personally find a cure for cancer, negotiate world peace and eliminate spam calls for extended auto warranties and it’s still not going to change the basic political dynamics on the ground.

Frankly, I’m surprised Griffith – a Republican –  isn’t taking to the House floor every day to blast your administration for ignoring Hurley, but maybe even Griffith is too sporting to take such easy shots. To be fair, this request for aid – and its denial – is all happening deep in the federal bureaucracy. Nobody really expects you to be getting daily updates on Hurley in your morning intelligence briefing. Yet every morning your fellow Americans in Hurley wake up and wonder why their federal government isn’t doing anything to help them. Some – such as Travis Staton, CEO of United Way of Southwest Virginia – can’t help but wonder if the whole system isn’t rigged against rural areas, not rigged in a conspiratorial way, but rigged in the sense that the rules are written for more populous areas so when a natural disaster hits a small, rural community, they’re just out of luck. 

Some may say there’s no political advantage for you – or Democrats in general – in getting involved and telling FEMA to approve this aid. They’re right, which is also an argument for why you should do it. You clearly wouldn’t be doing this to curry favor in Buchanan County, or Appalachia, or rural America at large. You’d be doing it because it’s the right thing to do.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.