Credit: Photo by Lakin Keene.

Residents of the Buchanan County community of Hurley who were left homeless after a devastating flash flood more than a year ago have been waiting for months to learn when promised state aid would finally arrive.

On Wednesday, they got their answer, directly from the governor:

“The money will flow well before Christmas to folks,” Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced during a stop in Bristol, where he spoke as part of the Cardinal News Speaker Series.

Map by Robert Lunsford

The first public meeting to brief the community on the disbursal process will be held Nov. 2, he said, and applications for aid will be accepted starting Nov. 9. It hasn’t been made public yet how the money will be allocated.

The General Assembly during its last session approved $11.4 million in aid for Hurley, where dozens of homes were destroyed and scores more were severely damaged by rising water and mudslides in August 2021. One person died.

United Way of Southwest Virginia, which has managed a million-dollar fundraising campaign to help Hurley’s recovery, has said that a conservative estimate of the cost to rebuild or replace the homes and private bridges that were damaged was $3.5 million, using all volunteer labor.

But the Federal Emergency Management Agency twice denied a request from the state to provide financial assistance to individual homeowners, saying that the damage wasn’t significant enough to warrant federal help.

Southwest Virginia floods

Read all of Cardinal News’ coverage of flooding in Southwest Virginia here.

State lawmakers, led by Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County, launched an effort to provide state money instead.

Morefield’s initial proposal would have created a flood relief fund using proceeds from Virginia’s involvement in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. But just a day after he filed his bill, Youngkin, who was then the governor-elect, publicly said he wanted to withdraw Virginia from the cap-and-trade partnership. 

Morefield’s bill was tabled, and what emerged instead was a budget appropriation of $11.4 million. The budget was delayed by months of legislative wrangling, and Youngkin finally was able to sign it in June.

As the months ticked by with no news on when or how the money would be available, frustration built in Buchanan County.

Denise McGeorge, who oversees flood victim case management for the Buchanan County Department of Social Services, said recently that she’s had to reassure clients over and over that the money is real, and that it’s coming. Some, she has said, have put off making decisions about how, or even whether, to rebuild until they know more about the state money.

“Unfortunately, when you’re on this side of the program, patience I guess is a virtue,” she said last week. “It’s definitely difficult to have during this time when you’ve waited so long.”

Youngkin acknowledged the frustration.

“All of this happens too slowly. All of it,” he said. “And my heart breaks for folks who have lost everything, that we can’t turn on a dime.”

Between the flood in Hurley and a similar flash flood this July in Whitewood, just 30 miles away, it became clear that the state didn’t have the infrastructure in place to respond quickly to such a disaster, he said.

He believes that the program that has been created over the past several months – what he called a “mini-FEMA” – will mean the process will be much faster the next time it’s needed. “This is not a capability that has existed” in the state, he said.

Morefield agreed. “To the public it may seem like a long process, that it’s been delayed,” he said. But multiple players – the Department of Housing and Community Development, the Buchanan County Department of Social Services, the governor’s office, Morefield’s staff and that of state Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County – have been working behind the scenes.

“It’s not just as easy as taking a name and writing someone a check,” he said. “You have to confirm the damage that’s occurred, you have to confirm that those receiving the payments are the owners of the property, so there’s a lot of due diligence that goes into place.”

Morefield said he’s “extremely satisfied” with the way it has come together. “I’m hopeful that this could serve as a model … in the event that we may have a future disaster anywhere in the commonwealth,” he said.

For more coverage of flooding in Southwest Virginia, see our projects page.

Megan Schnabel

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