Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks in Buchanan County. Photo by Megan Schnabel.

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OAKWOOD – Standing in the mud on the banks of the still-swollen Dismal River, the flood-ravaged shell of a family-owned body shop behind him, Gov. Glenn Youngkin pledged that the state would aggressively seek federal aid to help this Buchanan County community come back from week’s flash flooding – but he also emphasized the need to pursue longer-term recovery efforts on the state level.

“There’s a lot of work to do, a lot of hard times ahead, I think,” he said. “Now we’re going to have to rebuild, and the state’s going to do everything that we possibly can do to help.”

Youngkin flew in by helicopter on Friday, meeting first with local officials and first responders at Twin Valley Elementary/Middle School – where local social services agencies are helping residents with needs ranging from prescription medications to housing – and then visiting several sites affected by Tuesday night’s storm.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin meets with first responders in Buchanan County. Photo by Megan Schnabel.

As much as 6 inches of rain fell on parts of Buchanan County in just a few hours Tuesday night, sending debris-littered water rushing down the mountainsides and into creeks and culverts that couldn’t handle the onslaught. Bridges were crushed, houses moved off their foundations, cars and RVs carried away by the current into the sides of buildings.

It was the second time in less than a year that Youngkin had visited Buchanan County in the aftermath of severe flooding. During last year’s campaign, he toured the community of Hurley, about 30 miles away, which was hit with similar flash flooding and is still working to recover.

While the damage in Hurley was spread across a smaller geographic area, “The heartbreak is the same,” Youngkin said. “And the community response is the same. It’s just uplifting. To be back here again this summer, and be dealing with this again, just really, really does bring you to your knees.”

Youngkin said the state will “aggressively” pursue a federal disaster designation for the region, which would open up access to various federal assistance programs.

He also pledged that the state will work with county authorities to seek Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance, which was only partially granted in the aftermath of the Hurley flood. 

While FEMA authorized aid to help rebuild local infrastructure, it denied a request for individual assistance for homeowners. The state appealed the denial, but FEMA again turned it down, saying that the damage “was not of such severity and magnitude” to warrant the assistance. 

The Virginia Department of Emergency Management has said that 31 homes in Hurley were destroyed, 27 had major damage and another eight had minor damage. United Way of Southwest Virginia has said that a conservative estimate of the cost to rebuild or replace the homes and private bridges that were damaged in Hurley was $3.5 million, using all volunteer labor.

“We’re going to jump all over it and make sure we’ve done a comprehensive, comprehensive damage assessment,” Youngkin said. He said that VDEM head Shawn Talmadge, who joined him on the Buchanan County visit, would collaborate with county officials on the FEMA request.

“They’ve got to work together in order to get this done, and we’ve got to do that fast,” he said.

Youngkin said he spoke to U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner about flood relief efforts this week, and they’re all working together.

“We’re going to get the right response from the president and from FEMA,” he said.

But he said he also sees an increased role for the state in disaster recovery. He said he was pleased that the General Assembly appropriated $11.4 million for Hurley flood relief, an ask brought to Richmond by Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County. And he said he’d been “very supportive” of Morefield’s original proposal to create a state fund that would have made money available to property owners whose claims were denied by insurance, a hurdle encountered by many in Hurley.

However, that fund would have been paid for using money from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program that has brought more than $227 million to Virginia. The day after Morefield filed his bill, however, then-Gov.-elect Youngkin told a chamber of commerce gathering that he would withdraw Virginia from the initiative. Virginia remains in RGGI, but Youngkin is still committed to withdrawing the state.

The extent of the damage across Buchanan County communities including Oakwood, Pilgrim’s Knob and Whitewood is still being determined. Four VDEM teams began working in the county on Friday and are taking stock of the destruction, said John Northon, the department’s deputy state coordinator for disaster services. 

Travis Staton, president and CEO of United Way of Southwest Virginia, said local authorities believe that about 150 homes have sustained some kind of water damage but don’t know yet how many of those were destroyed. 

How to help

Anyone wishing to donate to the Buchanan County 2022 Disaster Fund may do so at https://unitedwayswva.charityproud.org/Donate/Index/19717 or by calling Cristie Lester at 276-525-4071.

A fundraising campaign launched this week has collected nearly $100,000 so far, Staton said, and the agency also is seeking volunteers to help clean and rebuild. But the need will be at least as great as it was in Hurley, he said, and he knows that public attention eventually moves on. 

“That’s why it’s important to get the volunteers and support as quickly as possible,” he said.

Youngkin ended his visit at M&M Body Shop, where mud-brown lines more than 5 feet high on the doors and walls mark the extent of the floodwaters.

Melissa Moore said she and her husband, whose body shop was inundated by floodwater, are trying to figure out what to do now. “We’ve never been here before,” she said. Photo by Megan Schnabel
Flood damage in the Pilgrim’s Knob section of Buchanan County. Photo by Lakin Keene.

The shop has been in business for 32 years and had never taken on this kind of water before, said Melissa Moore, whose husband, Bill, owns it. They’ve lost six of their nine tow trucks, a paint booth and countless tools. The shop is filled with muck and mud; they spent yesterday trying to dry out paperwork and invoices. 

The Moores live right across the road and could hear the roar of the water as it rushed past, but they couldn’t see the condition of their shop until the sun rose Wednesday morning.

They don’t have flood insurance, she said; it’s prohibitively expensive, and based on past flooding, they didn’t think they’d need it. 

Now they’re trying to figure out what to do next. They’d like to rebuild, but they’re not sure they’ll be able to on that site. They also own a small trailer park on the other side of the road; it’s been destroyed, and the families who lived there have been displaced. 

“We’ve never been here before,” she said. “Is there going to be help? Is there going to be any allocation for the community?”

Is FEMA going to help this time?

“That’s my question,” she said. She fears that the area just isn’t populous enough to meet FEMA’s guidelines, or get much attention.

“It’s a very family-oriented community, and there’s a lot of families hurt here,” she said. “They lost everything, literally. All they’ve got is the clothes on their back.”

Previous flood coverage:

Flood damage in Buchanan County called ‘apocalyptic’

Report: All residents now accounted for

Heavy flooding in Buchanan County; at least 44 missing (with photo galleries from the scene)

As part of his tour of the flooded areas of Buchanan County, Gov. Glenn Youngkin visited Twin Valley Elementary/Middle School in Oakwood, where donations are being accepted and handed out to residents. A significant need right now: cleaning supplies. Photo by Megan Schnabel.

Megan Schnabel

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