GRUNDY – Ida Proffitt sat on a couch in the lobby of the Comfort Inn in Grundy and folded clothes, one eye on the dark green swirls of the radar image that was lighting up the TV a few feet away.
It was July 28, two weeks and two days since Proffitt had escaped from her mobile home on Dismal River Road as floodwaters had risen around her. Now more rain was pouring from the darkened sky, and the National Weather Service had issued a flood watch for that day and the next.
She’d been set to head out that morning and do some work on the trailer she’d be moving into, just outside Grundy. But then she saw the sky falling, and the river rising, and even though her new home was on higher ground, she just couldn’t do it. She headed back to the Comfort Inn, where she had a room on the fourth floor – the top floor. She has panic attacks now, she said, which she’d never had before.
“The sound,” she said. “They can act like they know on TV about how it sounds, floods and stuff, but they don’t know the sound. And once you hear it, you don’t forget it. And you’re constantly watching: Is it raining? Is water out there?”
On the night of July 12, 5 to 6 inches of rain fell on parts of eastern Buchanan County and western Tazewell County in just a few hours. The water rushed down the steep mountain slopes and, with nowhere else to go, filled the narrow hollers where people had built their homes on the flat land along the Dismal River.
An initial damage estimate completed in the days after the flood found that 33 structures had been destroyed and another 60 damaged, more than half of them severely.
Two weeks later, state and federal teams had come to the region to further assess the damage, in preparation for a request for a federal emergency declaration. But then came the new storm, and their plan to survey the flooded areas was halted due to concerns about more flash flooding.
By midday that Thursday, it had become clear that while the new round of rainstorms was wreaking some havoc on Buchanan County – inundating again some homes that had just been mucked out and left to dry – much more severe impacts were being felt in Wise and Dickenson counties to the southwest, and across eastern Kentucky, just over the state line.
Even before that, the deflections had come again and again: We’re the lucky ones. Our neighbor, or cousin, or friend a mile away lost everything.
The refrain grew more emphatic as the magnitude of the death and destruction in neighboring Kentucky came into focus. As of this week, the confirmed death toll there had climbed to 37.
We have our lives. The rest is just stuff.
No one died during the July 12 flood. No one was seriously injured.
But a great disaster in one place doesn’t negate suffering somewhere else. And weeks after the flood – after Gov. Glenn Youngkin had toured the region and declared a state of emergency, after national and regional media attention had faded – dozens of families remained in limbo as they waited to learn what would become of their homes.
* * *
Just a few yards from the muddy creek bank where the governor had talked to reporters days after the flood, Steve Proffitt led the way up a buckled wooden ramp and into the shell of his daughter’s mobile home.
His daughter and his niece and a couple of their friends had taken out the furniture and shoveled out as much mud as they could, but that’s as far as they’d gotten, he told Butch Meredith, who had stopped by to assess the damage.
The scene was familiar to Meredith, who lives in Roanoke and coordinates volunteer crews from the Baptist General Association of Virginia, and who was spending the day visiting flood victims despite the steadily falling rain. BGAV volunteers spent much of the last year cleaning and rebuilding houses just 30 miles away in the Guesses Fork section of Hurley, which was hit by a similar flash flood in late August and saw more than two dozen homes destroyed and scores more damaged.
Southwest Virginia floods
Read all of Cardinal News’ coverage of flooding in Southwest Virginia here.
In fact, the BGAV volunteers had driven their last nail in Hurley on July 13, the day that the sun had risen on new flooding on the other side of the county.
Now they were in full recovery mode again. They’d set up temporary showers and laundry facilities right after the flood and had started cleaning out houses in preparation for repairs: tearing out drywall and floors and kitchen cabinets, clearing out mud, spraying chemicals to retard the growth of mold.
Meredith looked around the nearly empty mobile home and started making notes: The walls would have to be cut out a couple of feet up from the floor. The flooring would have to come out, and maybe some of the plywood under it. Insulation would have to be replaced. The base cabinets in the kitchen probably would have to go. The whole home would be sprayed for mold and mildew and then would have to dry for a couple of weeks.
He might be able to get a crew there as early as Monday, he told Proffitt.
Proffitt’s daughter and granddaughter are staying with him and his wife for now; their house, about a mile distant, wasn’t damaged, although part of their yard had washed away. He cracked a joke: He used to complain about having to mow multiple lawns – his daughter’s, his own, and his mother-in-law’s – but now there’s just half of one left. Be careful what you wish for, he said.
But it was clear he was still reeling from what had happened two weeks earlier. By the time he’d realized how fast the water was rising that night and had gone to check on his daughter and his wife’s mother, he couldn’t get to them because the road was blocked.
“I told a deputy there, I said, ‘My daughter’s on one end, and my mother-in-law’s on the other end.’ I said, ‘There’s got to be some way I can get across,’” Proffitt recalled. “He said, ‘Ain’t no way you can get across.’ I said, ‘Buddy, you don’t understand. My daughter’s on one end, my mother-in-law’s down here. I got to get across.’ He said, ‘No, you don’t understand. You can’t get across. We can’t even get rescue units across.’
“I went back home, cried a little bit, prayed a little bit,” he said.
“We just couldn’t get to her. … I couldn’t get to her no way.” It wasn’t until 8 the next morning that he got word his daughter was safe.
He said he’s sorry that his daughter had just put in a new floor and bought new appliances and living room furniture. And he told Meredith he’s grateful for any help that the volunteers can give her.
“But everybody survived. So that’s the main thing,” he said.
How to help
To donate to the Buchanan County 2022 Disaster Fund, go to https://unitedwayswva.charityproud.org/Donate/Index/19717 or call Cristie Lester at 276-525-4071.
Volunteer efforts and donations have been key to the recovery in Hurley and will be for the Dismal River flood area as well; few homeowners in either place carried flood insurance. More than $250,000 has been raised so far to buy building materials that will keep groups like BGAV supplied for months.
The outpouring of volunteer help across Whitewood and Pilgrim’s Knob and the other affected communities has been something to witness, Meredith said; it has far surpassed what he saw in Hurley not quite a year ago.
That may be because this disaster attracted national attention. Immediately following the flood, local officials had announced that 44 people were unaccounted for – probably, they said, because they had been cut off from phone service and their homes made inaccessible by floodwater.
The dramatic details made the national news – CNN, USA Today, The New York Times, the Weather Channel – although most of those outlets stopped reporting on it once everyone was found to be safe. By contrast, the flooding in Hurley, which killed one person, got very little media attention from outside the immediate region.
Chris Mitchell, who runs the Mountain Mission School in Grundy and is coordinating volunteer efforts for the flood recovery, listed off some of the other groups that have come to help or have said they’re on the way: Samaritan’s Purse, Team Rubicon, God’s Pit Crew, Operation Blessings, Christ in Action. Rotarians from across the district are planning to help, as are groups of Latter-day Saints and Southern Baptists.
Some came to help with the initial cleanup and then left, he said; others, like BGAV, expect to stay through the entire recovery process.
Local churches are pitching in. So are businesses and civic groups and neighbors.
Scott McCormack, whose home was one of a handful in neighboring Tazewell County to be flooded, is a firefighter and paramedic and is used to being the one to provide help.
“I’ve never been on this end of it,” he said. “It’s been a humbling experience.”
He lives with his wife and their toddler son in a house that used to belong to her grandparents. They moved in 17 years ago and have been fixing it up, one room at a time. Now it’s been cleaned out down to the floor joists and the wall studs, with the help of friends and coworkers and a bunch of people he’d never met before.
“Strangers pouring down the driveway: Do you need water? Do you need bleach? Do you need money?” he said. “When a stranger pulls in the driveway and hands you $20 and a pizza, you can’t help but think about the goodness in people.”
He’s been an emotional mess, he said, unable to even talk about the help they’ve received without getting choked up. But once they’ve pulled their lives back together, he and his wife want to help with whatever the next disaster might be.
But first, he wants to feed everyone.
“I was raised by an Italian woman from New York, and I love to cook,” he said. “We’ve got a running list of everyone who’s stopped by to help. I’m going to fill the entire back field with people and I’m going to feed every single one of them until they’re sick. Everyone is going to know exactly how much their contribution to our lives has meant.”
* * *
For Buchanan County, last year’s flood in Hurley was a crash course in responding to a natural disaster: coordinating volunteers, managing donations, filing paperwork, clearing roads, distributing aid.
The lessons that the county and its partners learned then are playing out now across the Dismal River area in ways that local officials believe are making the response more efficient.
As County Administrator Craig Horn put it: “It kind of helps on the second one that you’ve been through the first one.”
Meredith’s group, for instance, stopped serving hot meals after a week because it saw how demand had tapered off in Guesses Fork as the power came back on and as people found temporary housing.
A case manager hired after the Hurley flood has helped speed aid to residents this time around, Horn said. The Hurley Long Term Recovery Group, which brought together local government representatives and social services staff and nonprofit agencies, is still working in Hurley but has been expanded to the newly flooded areas and is coordinating activities including fundraising and volunteer scheduling.
“We knew what to do as far as procedure and operations and funding, and how we’re going to structure everything that comes through,” Horn said, “so we didn’t have to have a bunch of meetings, which really helped.”
One complication encountered in Guesses Fork that has also turned out to be an issue in the newly flooded areas: the reliance on private bridges to access homes, and the regulatory and funding challenges related to repairing or replacing scores of them.
“We have learned more about bridges and more about engineers and more about the complexities of water and what’s in the water and environmental review,” said Travis Staton, president and CEO of United Way of Southwest Virginia. They also learned that state and federal aid generally can’t be put toward private bridges, so they had to figure out the best ways to leverage private donations to cover the costs. That will likely need to happen in Whitewood as well.
Another lesson they learned through Hurley: just how difficult it can be for residents to navigate the network of aid resources. Some families in Hurley turned down local financial help, for instance, because they feared it would prevent them from accepting money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which never ended up coming.
“Just helping people know what’s available, what the rules and regulations of some of those things are – that’s one thing that we’ve got to pay close attention to,” Staton said.
The county, with help from the state, will try again to obtain FEMA help for flooded-out residents. The federal agency provided financial assistance to rebuild infrastructure after the Guesses Fork flood but twice denied a request for aid for individual property owners. The damage just wasn’t severe enough, the agency ruled.
The denial still rankles, as does what both some local officials and residents see as an unnecessarily opaque approval process that leaves localities in the dark about what it takes to qualify for federal money.
“We have asked, and continue to say, what is the formula for FEMA?” Staton said. “And to be honest with you, we still don’t know.”
Jeff Cooper, who represents the Whitewood area on the county board of supervisors, thinks the chances of getting individual assistance from FEMA are “very slim.” The county will certainly apply, he said. “But I don’t know what it takes.”
Linda Mullins, whose home of 45 years was inundated with water from the Dismal River, isn’t expecting any federal help. When her son-in-law and his friends started clearing out the house two days after the flood, she made sure they salvaged bathroom vanities, toilets, countertops, even strips of molding.
“Honey, we saved everything we could, because it’s up to us to put it back,” she said. “’Cause I know FEMA’s not going to help.”
Her husband, Bob Mullins, said they carried flood insurance for the first 20 years or so that they lived in the house but gave it up when finances got tight. It seemed unnecessary anyway, he said.
Before they bought the land, he’d asked the oldest man in the community about whether the property had ever flooded.
You’re safe to build there, the man told him. The land hadn’t even flooded in 1977, when so much of the region was underwater.
“Of course, he’s dead and gone now,” Mullins said with a chuckle. “I can’t tell him, ‘You owe me one.’”
He and his wife try to laugh, he said, because what else are they going to do?
“We got no insurance, we got very little savings. What’s it going to do to cry?” he said. “I just try to think positive.”
They’re hoping Meredith can help them get the building materials they need to repair the house. They have a crew of family and friends already lined up to do the work.
Meredith said he’d do his best but warned them that it could take several weeks to get an answer, as local officials were still figuring out how much the fundraising campaign was bringing in and what the overall needs would be.
“Well, if you can do anything, we sure appreciate it,” Bob Mullins said. “And if you can’t, we’ll understand.”
His wife added: “And we’ll love you anyway.”
* * *
The initial cleanup is just the beginning of what will be a long slog, Horn said.
“The hardest part is getting ready to happen,” he said. “The hardest thing to deal with are the expectations of the people after about three or four weeks. Because their expectations are pretty high. They want help and they can’t see why you don’t help them.”
The county can’t go on private property and clear out debris, he said, which is why so many damaged and abandoned houses still stand along Guesses Fork Road in Hurley.
Nor, he said, will the federal government allow the county to dredge creeks to remove sediment and rocks that have filled them up and made future flooding more likely, or to rechannel the creek to restore it to its previous path. That’s why Guesses Fork is wide in some places, narrow in others, and generally less deep than it used to be. He knows it’s an ongoing source of frustration to Hurley residents. And he knows he’ll be dealing with a similar issue in the newly flooded area.
Buchanan County has pursued state and federal aid to help both with flood cleanup and with mitigation programs. But the paperwork can be complicated and time-consuming, and, as they saw in Hurley, applying for aid doesn’t mean receiving aid.
(The Hurley recovery ended up receiving $11.4 million from the General Assembly earlier this year; discussions are still going on in Richmond about how that money will be distributed, Staton said.)
Last fall, Buchanan County got almost $400,000 from a state fund designed to help localities prepare for flooding. But that program, and a newly created revolving loan fund targeted at flood prevention efforts, both are paid for with money from Virginia’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Youngkin has pledged to pull Virginia out of the program, leaving the future of the initiatives unclear.
[Read more about Virginia’s flood relief programs here.]
Tracking the decline of the coal industry that used to employ thousands in the region, the population of Buchanan County has been dropping steadily for years. It fell by 18% between 2010 and 2021 and now stands at not quite 20,000. Meanwhile, the county’s median age has rocketed upward: from 26 in 1980 to 47.8 last year, according to census data.
Horn knows that residents, especially older ones, are struggling with the question of whether to stay after this most recent disaster.
There are rules about building homes and bridges in a place that has flooded – rules that typically mean delays and extra expense – and he expects that up to a quarter of the people whose homes were destroyed won’t rebuild. Maybe because they don’t want to shoulder the expense, maybe because they’re elderly and can’t handle the extra stairs that would come with a floodproofed house, maybe because they simply can’t see moving back to the site of a disaster.
He doesn’t like it, but he understands. So does Cooper.
“I think we may lose some population because of it,” he said. “We’re trending down anyway. It’s not a good thing. But I look at them, and I can’t blame them for it.”
Gay Maxwell is one longtime resident who has decided to stay. Her house was damaged, not destroyed, but the rebuilding process is going to take time. The flooring has been torn out, the walls taken down to studs.
“For two weeks, we’ve been here about every day, working,” said Maxwell, who’s 91.
She and her husband moved into the house 62 years ago; it stands on land his parents gave them. The cluster of a half-dozen homes is called Maxwell Bottom, and nieces and nephews and children and grandchildren live nearby.
The house doesn’t have to be perfect, she said. But it’s home.
She didn’t have flood insurance; it was too expensive. Besides, she said, even the flood of ’77 only came up to the first step of her patio.
She and her son were talking recently with someone about whether the house was salvageable.
“My son made this remark – it broke my heart, because they have a beautiful home on the mountain,” she said. “My son said, ‘Do you think it can be fixed?’ And he said, ‘Yes, but it’s going to take money.’ And Terry said, ‘Well, I’ll sell my home so my mother can have her home back.’”
Cooper, who has lived in the area his whole life, said it seems like the county just keeps getting hit with disasters that push its people to their limits.
“When I come visit their houses and talk to them, they thank me for things that I do,” he said. “They’re worn out. They’re mentally and physically exhausted, and they’re thanking me for things I’m doing, and I’m like, I’m not doing anything.
“I feel worthless when I talk to them,” he said. “But they’re hugging you, they’re thanking you. It’s been very difficult to be in that situation where you can’t help somebody that needs it. … Me and my wife, we’ve left many homes through this in tears.”
* * *
At the Comfort Inn, as rain poured down outside, Ida Proffitt shared the story of how she and her husband managed to escape the floodwater, and on her phone she scrolled through photos and videos of the devastation.
But it was clear she’d rather talk about her widowed neighbor, whose home of 46 years was destroyed, or about all of the other folks in her community who lost so much.
“You look around and you see people a lot worse than I am,” she said.
Her daughter, Frances Justus, set up a GoFundMe page to help Proffitt get back on her feet. It has raised more than $3,200 – enough, Justus said, to replace what Proffitt and her husband lost in their rental trailer.
But her mother keeps suggesting they use some of the money to help others, Justus said.
“She was in the hotel and someone gave her $100,” said Justus, who lives in Ohio and has been traveling back and forth to Buchanan County to help her mother. “She turned right around and gave it to another one of the people who was there who had lost their home. I mean, didn’t even have time to put it in her purse.”
Proffitt said she has a couch and a table and chairs that she wants to give to anyone who needs it.
“If you’re in need, you’ve still got to help others who are in need, too,” she said. “If you can’t help your neighbor when they’re in need, then why have neighbors?”
That’s the fundamental guiding principle of her mother’s existence, Justus said. And it’s something that she has witnessed around the community.
“I’d grown up in that area, so I always thought everyone was that strong, I always thought everyone was that resilient, I always thought everyone was that selfless,” she said.
“But moving away from that area, I realized that is something very innate to that area. Just different people who look at things beautifully.”
Coming soon in Cardinal News: Almost a year after flooding devastated the Buchanan County community of Hurley, the recovery continues.