Winter is coming, and some of Jeff Cooper’s neighbors are living in campers.
One, he said, is in a tent.
Three months have passed since a flash flood tore through parts of Buchanan County, destroying almost three dozen homes and damaging scores more. Three months since the media blitz, three months since out-of-town politicians toured the devastation and brought promises of help.
As Cooper – a county supervisor – drives through Pilgrim’s Knob and Whitewood and Jewell Valley and sees the scars of the flooding still evident on the land and the houses, and as he hears from constituents who still don’t have a home and don’t know what to do, he feels powerless to fix things.
“Morale’s down in the little area over here, going into the wintertime, strapped for cash, not seeing much movement,” said Cooper, who’s serving his first term on the county board.
Southwest Virginia floods
Read all of Cardinal News’ coverage of flooding in Southwest Virginia here.
Eastern Buchanan County and western Tazewell County were hit with up to 6 inches of rain in just a few hours the night of July 12, sending water and mud up out of Dismal Creek and its tributaries and down the steep hillsides that bracket them. Houses built on the narrow strips of flat land along the creek were inundated. Bridges and cars were swept away.
Volunteers arrived almost immediately, setting up mobile showers and feeding stations and starting the dirty work of mucking out houses to keep mold at bay. Some left after a few weeks as other natural disasters beckoned; others have pledged to stay until the rebuilding is done. A fundraising effort led by United Way of Southwest Virginia has brought in about $700,000 to buy building supplies and other necessities.
That’s almost certainly not going to be enough, but right now, it’s the only help that’s available to many residents. The Federal Emergency Management Agency denied a request to provide financial aid to homeowners. Discussions are underway about providing state relief money, but if it comes it would be months away. Homeowners who had insurance mostly saw their claims denied or diminished.
Cooper is grateful for the help that has poured in. But he fears that after the initial wave of publicity, his community has been forgotten by the general public, and by some of the same government officials who visited in those early days.
He said people who have been through disasters before warned him that things would get harder three or four months into the recovery.
“We’ve hit that wall now,” he said. “I’m sure people are very unhappy with me. It’s frustrating, but that’s how it is.”
He believes that his neighbors have only to look across the county to see what lies ahead for them. In August 2021, a similar flash flood struck the Guesses Fork area of Hurley, about 30 miles away. The scope of the damage was similar to what happened in Whitewood; more than a year later, the rebuilding there is still underway.
In Hurley, too, FEMA refused to provide financial help for homeowners. More than $11 million in state aid has been earmarked but not yet disbursed. Streams remain clogged with debris thanks to lack of funding and stringent permitting requirements.
Buchanan County, which has watched its population and tax base dwindle alongside the decline of the coal business, doesn’t have the resources to tackle the problems on its own, especially not after this one-two punch, Cooper said.
“Morale is largely down over in this area, on relying on government of any kind, even myself,” he said. “This has given me an eye-opener of what politics and government is really like. This is a true disaster in your area, and your hands are tied on helping a lot of these guys out, and you see up close and personal the slowness of things happening.”
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Less money, higher costs make rebuilding a challenge
Local officials are trying to make that $700,000 in donations stretch as far as possible, hoping that more money will come in but expecting that the need will be greater still.
More than 300 requests for help have come in from residents, said Travis Staton, president and CEO of United Way of Southwest Virginia, which has managed the relief fund. Some were relatively simple: Families needed money to buy groceries, or to have debris hauled away.
Others required more than just cash. Some homes were severely damaged but could be repaired; those cases were turned over to teams of volunteers, with building supplies purchased from the donated funds. Of the 33 properties in that category, three had been finished by last week and another 17 were in progress, Staton said.
And then there were the families who lost everything. United Way is handling 22 requests for help from homeowners whose houses were destroyed.
Members of the long-term recovery group who coordinated relief efforts after the Hurley flood are now working on the Whitewood response; they know from experience that those 22 will be the hardest cases.
Eighteen homeowners in Hurley were approved for new houses through the relief fund. Just one has been completed so far, according to United Way’s flood recovery dashboard.
It’s a matter of money and manpower, Staton said.
They’ve asked for more help from Mennonite Disaster Services, which started building houses in Hurley this summer and has just about finished its first one. The group intends to step up, said spokesman Davide Kanegey, but probably can’t do much in Whitewood until its work in Hurley is done – and it has at least five houses to go there. As it is, he’s having trouble finding enough volunteers to complete that work, he said.
Money is the other sticking point. Roughly $300,000 less has been raised for the Whitewood recovery than for Hurley; since the scale of the damage in the two places is comparable, that means less money is available per house in Whitewood, Staton said.
Nor are those dollars going as far as they did in Hurley, thanks to inflation. A rebuilding project that might have cost $9,000 or $10,000 last fall is now $12,000 to $14,000, said Butch Meredith, who heads up volunteer crews from the Baptist General Association of Virginia.
“That’s hard to absorb when you have 15 projects,” he said. “It’s stretching our donated funds to the max.”
Right now, they’re not able to rebuild every house. While a state survey determined that 33 structures were destroyed, rental homes are not eligible for financial help from the United Way fund, said Denise McGeorge, who oversees the flood response for the Buchanan County Department of Social Services. As more money comes in, those parameters might expand, she said.
Despite the challenges, Meredith and others said the pace of recovery – at least for properties that are salvageable – has actually been faster than in Hurley because the responders had a framework in place this time.
“It’s like reinventing the wheel – you don’t have to,” he said. “This whole group that’s worked on this thing started from scratch in Hurley, and so it was a big learning curve. And this time, they already had most of the details and stuff worked out for future involvement if necessary. And bingo, it happened.”
He saw it firsthand: His group didn’t start their rebuilding work in Hurley until Nov. 1, two full months after the flood. In Whitewood, it took them less than 15 days to get started.
They had just driven their last nail in Hurley when the flood hit Whitewood.
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Lessons from the August 2021 flood in Hurley
Hurley provided some tough lessons to residents, too.
Staton thinks people around Whitewood who have watched the recovery unfold on the other side of the county are clear-eyed about the help that’s available – or, more to the point, that’s not available.
Some Hurley homeowners were reluctant at first to accept financial help from the United Way fund because they feared it would hurt their chances at getting money from FEMA, he said. Waiting for that money, which never came, delayed their rebuilding by months.
After watching their neighbors wait and wait, only to be disappointed, few people in Whitewood expected that FEMA would come to their aid.
“They didn’t see it in Hurley, so I think they are just ready to not wait, and to try and get their lives back on track,” Staton said. “I do think the community is more knowledgeable about what the road is ahead and how difficult it is, and when someone offers assistance, take it.”
Cooper said he was careful to not give his constituents false hope about FEMA, and he warned them that even if the federal money were to come through, they’d probably only get a few thousand dollars apiece.
“We’ve learned a lot from Hurley, and I’ve used Hurley as an example,” he said. “Our local people can see what’s happened in Hurley. They can see that it’s still the same. So they’re like, ‘Well, if they’re not getting it then we’re not going to get it, either.’”
He’s been frustrated by what he sees as lack of action by the state as well. He said he’s kept tabs on the recovery in eastern Kentucky, which was hit by deadly flash floods several weeks after the downpour in Whitewood, and he believes it’s further along than what he sees at home. He credits Kentucky’s governor, Democrat Andy Beshear, with the progress.
Cooper said he’s a Republican and he “votes red.” But he said he’s upset that Gov. Glenn Youngkin and other officials visited Whitewood right after the flood but haven’t been back to check on things since then.
“Early on when this thing was brand new, we had a lot of people come here and visit,” he said. “A lot of our higher officials – our governor, senators, people like that – rushed in really quick to visit: ‘Hey, we’re here to help you.’ It kind of lifted the spirits of the folks quite a bit, and mine.
“It’s slowed to a crawl now. Not seeing much help from those guys at all. They’ve kind of vanished. They came in and said a lot of good things, and you never see them again. And that kind of killed the morale for these people around here.”
He’d like to see Youngkin “step up” – maybe call a special session of the General Assembly to figure out a way to get more financial help to Buchanan County. He thinks a word from the governor could spur action on getting the creeks cleaned out and the rest of the flood-damaged roads repaired.
In a conversation last week with Cardinal News, Youngkin said he understands why residents are frustrated, and he acknowledged that progress probably has seemed slow to them. But he said he’s seen “extraordinary engagement” from the state, both in Hurley and in Whitewood, since he took office in January.
“I just want to assure everybody that we have been fully engaged,” he said. “It’s not apparent every day, because so much of it is behind-the-scenes work in order to facilitate things. But getting the support out as quickly as we can has been a high priority.”
Months of planning have gone into setting up a system to disburse $11.4 million in state aid to residents of Hurley, and Youngkin said that framework can be used in Whitewood as well – once the 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.
The state money for Hurley, which was included in the state budget, has yet to be disbursed, but a public meeting to explain the process is scheduled for Wednesday, and applications for aid can be filed starting next week. The money will start reaching residents “well before Christmas,” Youngkin said.
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A harsh reality: Years of recovery lie ahead
For all his frustration with state officials, Cooper acknowledges that he’s also been disheartened by his own inability to do more.
He travels around the region for his job in the oil and gas business, and he said he’s seen his share of washed-out roads and bridges. He’s used to being able to just fix problems, and it’s made him feel helpless to have to go through bureaucratic channels to get things done for constituents.
He said he’s tried to find workarounds, like partnering with a local nonprofit to help a couple of families replace their driveways and bridges.
But he said he knows of several people who decided they’re not up to the rebuilding task because of their health or their finances, and they’ve moved away. The same happened in Hurley.
He understands, he said. But it’s still hard to watch the county’s population continue to decline. It’s now just a shade under 20,000 people; in the late 1970s, it was over 38,000.
Terry Keen, whose mother lost everything in her basement to the flood water – including her oil furnace and all of the food she’d put up for winter – has spent the last three months working to keep her in her home. He got her signed up for financial assistance right after the storm, but when weeks passed and she hadn’t heard anything, he took matters into his own hands and bought her a new heat pump and water heater.
“She’s 81, and she’s cold all the time,” he said. “So we needed something for heat – we knew the cold weather is coming.”
He and his family have spent countless hours working on her house, cleaning and repairing. He knows that many residents had it worse – his own house was spared, and his mother’s was still livable even with the basement damage. But his mother worked hard her whole life, and she’s on a fixed income, he said; she shouldn’t fall through the cracks.
“We have her in pretty decent shape again,” he said. “Her house is back fairly good right now, but it’s been frustrating. … I want my mom to have the things that she deserves.”
Keen said he’s grateful for all of the donations and the volunteers that arrived in the days after the storm. He was amazed by how quickly power and water were restored, he said. But he said this week that he’s still waiting to learn whether he will be reimbursed from the relief fund for the $8,000 he’s spent on his mother’s house.
“I don’t want to sound ungrateful for anything that anybody’s done for us,” he said. “They really did an amazing job, and really did it fairly quick. I was very pleased with that. But it seems like after the first two weeks here, things have just sort of stalled.”
Staton knows that it’s no comfort to people who are waiting for help to hear that they need to be patient. But the painful truth is that recovering from a disaster of this size with limited resources is a challenge.
“For these types of disasters, folks just really don’t understand how long it takes,” he said. “You’re talking 24 to 36 months when you have something of this magnitude.”
Help continues to come in. SunCoke Energy, which operates a coke plant in Whitewood, is donating equipment and workers to fix up the Pilgrim’s Knob community center and will be helping with demolition, grading and other work across the area, Meredith said.
The U.S. Small Business Administration has set up a temporary office at the Whitewood Volunteer Fire Department, where residents can apply for low-interest loans to help pay for rebuilding.
Virginia Department of Transportation crews continue to fix roads around Whitewood; they’ve finished not quite half of the work that needs to be done, including repairing 40 slides and hauling away about 26,000 cubic yards of debris, spokeswoman Michelle Earl said.
They’ve been concentrating on high-traffic routes like Dismal River Road, she said, and they’ll continue to work into the winter as weather allows.
Weather remains a driving force for all of the recovery efforts, said McGeorge, whose team is handling hundreds of flood-related cases between the Hurley and Whitewood disasters.
“It’s early fall right now, but we’re having some really strong weather patterns right now where we’ve had some freezing temperatures,” she said. “That’s the realization, that winter is on our heels.”