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.

After a federal agency again declined to provide aid to homeowners in the flood-ravaged Buchanan County community of Hurley, local officials are now turning to a state relief program for financial help.

In a letter this week, the head of the United Way of Southwest Virginia asked Gov. Glenn Youngkin to authorize access to the Virginia Disaster Relief Fund, a public-private program that was created a decade ago after a tornado devastated parts of Washington County. In that case, as in Hurley, the Federal Emergency Management Agency refused to provide help to individual property owners.

The fund is a tool of last resort, available only after all other state, federal and private aid has been exhausted. FEMA this week again denied help for Hurley homeowners, paving the way to tap the state fund.

Travis Staton, president and CEO of United Way of Southwest Virginia, on Wednesday said that while the second FEMA denial was disappointing, local officials now can move ahead with other plans.

“This will allow us to get over the hurdle of the unknown and really know what we’ve got ahead of us and what we need to do,” he said.

In late August, the community of Hurley was devastated by flash flooding and mudslides after as much as 7 inches of rain fell in a matter of hours. One person died, dozens of homes were destroyed and scores of other houses were damaged.

While FEMA authorized help for rebuilding local infrastructure, it denied a request for money to help individual homeowners, telling then-Gov. Ralph Northam that the damage “was not of such severity and magnitude” to warrant the assistance. 

The state appealed the denial, and members of Virginia’s congressional delegation wrote to President Joe Biden in support of releasing more federal dollars. This week’s FEMA decision was a denial of that appeal.

In the months since the flood, volunteer construction teams from across the state have converged on Buchanan County. Some families have been able to return to their rebuilt homes, Staton said Wednesday, but others continue to live with relatives.

Volunteer efforts and local fundraising have been coordinated by the Hurley Long-Term Recovery Group, a group of residents and local officials. United Way of Southwest Virginia acts as its fiscal agent.

The group has raised just over $500,000 to buy construction materials and cover other needs, Staton said Wednesday, but that’s not nearly enough. Now that FEMA is out of the picture, a conservative estimate to rebuild or replace the homes and private bridges that were damaged is about $3.5 million, he said, and that’s if they use all volunteer labor.

“And that’s barely, barely getting it done,” he said. 

If the state money comes through, it can only be used for certain work – it can’t be put toward rebuilding bridges, for instance, Staton said, which will likely cost a half-million dollars or more. That work will have to be covered by local donations.

Timing has been a challenge as well, he said. Some homeowners were reluctant to accept any local money for fear that it would hurt their chances with FEMA, which slowed down some rebuilding efforts. And a key volunteer contingent – a group of Mennonite workers with a lot of experience rebuilding after disasters – will have to leave to tend to their own farms once the weather turns warm.

“Timing is everything,” he said. “If we don’t start getting them working now, we’re going to delay the process on some of those things until next winter.”

Staton said he’s heard that the state relief fund currently holds about $300,000 – “not a lot, and not enough,” he acknowledged. But it’s funded through donations, and he believes the total could grow – especially if Richmond increases public awareness of it and encourages companies and individuals to give. 

The fund is an important resource for the whole state, he said, because no one knows where the next disaster will strike – or whether the federal government will help. “It’s today in Southwest Virginia,” he said. “It could be somewhere else tomorrow – in Southside or on the Eastern Shore.”

Staton said he’s confident that Youngkin will sign off on using the state fund to help Hurley. Long-Term Recovery Group caseworkers have been assessing damages and collecting documentation. As soon as they learn they’re eligible, they’ll start submitting cases to the state, he said.

He also said he’s supportive of an effort by Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County, to create a state flood relief fund using money that Virginia has received through its participation in a regional cap-and-trade initiative. That bill awaits action in a House committee in Richmond.

“We are resilient and we are tough in Southwest Virginia,” Staton said. “We don’t ask for a lot of help. We usually get it done locally, and we’re going to do it, and we’re going to get it done. But a little bit of help would be nice, and it would go a long way.”

Megan Schnabel

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