Flood damage in the Pilgrim's Knob section of Buchanan County. Photo by Lakin Keene.

Homeowners in Buchanan County who suffered property losses in a July flash flood that decimated areas around Whitewood will not be eligible to receive aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Gov. Glenn Youngkin said Wednesday.

The news was a disappointment but not a surprise to many in Southwest Virginia; just a year ago, FEMA made the same ruling after a similar flood hit the Buchanan County community of Hurley. In that case, the state appealed the decision and the federal agency denied the request a second time, saying that the damage wasn’t significant enough to warrant aid.

“Unfortunately with the Whitewood flood, we’re seeing the exact same pattern,” Youngkin said during a stop in Bristol on Wednesday morning as part of the Cardinal News Speaker Series. (He also announced that state aid for Hurley should arrive by Christmas; see previous story.)

The night of July 12, the areas around Whitewood, Pilgrim’s Knob and Jewell Valley were hit with up to 6 inches of rain in just a few hours. The downpour, and the runoff from the surrounding steep hillsides, swelled the Dismal River and its tributaries, sending water rushing into homes and sweeping away vehicles and bridges.

An assessment by the Virginia Department of Emergency Management determined that 33 structures were destroyed. Another 33 sustained major damage, and two dozen had minor damage. Many roads were damaged, and power and water were knocked out to much of the area.

Buchanan County is eligible for FEMA funding to help pay for infrastructure repairs, but no money will be available to individual property owners. Even if FEMA had granted the state’s request for individual assistance, the most any homeowner could have received is about $35,000, and the average FEMA payout is closer to $5,000.

Youngkin said state officials decided to not appeal FEMA’s decision this time; an appeal would require new information, and they simply don’t have any, he said. Instead, he said, they’re focusing on how to help Whitewood residents in other ways.

Among the options available to homeowners are low-interest loans offered by the federal Small Business Administration, which is operating an outreach center through Nov. 4 at the Whitewood Volunteer Fire Department.

Some rebuilding is already underway. About $700,000 in private donations has been collected for the recovery, and volunteer construction crews have started rebuilding homes that were damaged by the flood.

Youngkin said his administration has been talking with the office of Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, about trying to revise the framework that FEMA uses for individual assistance. State and local officials have long said that the federal agency’s process is opaque, leaving them uncertain of why some requests are granted and others denied. 

The suspicion has long been that rural areas like Buchanan County simply don’t have enough population density, or enough high-dollar homes, to meet some unknown FEMA threshold.

“It doesn’t work for so many parts of America, and particularly Virginia,” Youngkin said. “At a time when we need rapid response and can’t get it because of thresholds that in rural areas are just impossible to hit, we need to fix that.”

Meanwhile, he said, the state needs to focus on what it can do to help Whitewood. Over the last several months, the Department of Housing and Community Development has worked with other agencies to create a system to manage and disburse $11.4 million in flood recovery money for Hurley that was written into this year’s state budget. Youngkin said Wednesday that this framework could be used to create a similar effort for Whitewood – once funding is in place.

“I look forward to working with our Southwest delegation to make sure that incremental funds are included in this next year’s budget in order to provide the same kind of state support where it’s needed,” he said.

For more flood coverage, see our topics page.

Megan Schnabel is managing editor for Cardinal News. Reach her at megan@cardinalnews.org or 540-819-4969.