Stephanie Stiltner's home in Hurley was damaged but is being rebuilt, unlike several nearby houses. “We have issues here, but my neighbors' houses aren't even standing," she said. "To walk back off that hill and see nothing where stuff had been all your life, it is just -- I don't even have a word for it. Devastating is the best word I’ve got." Photo by Lakin Keene.

More than $2 million in state aid has been disbursed to residents of Hurley whose homes were damaged or destroyed in a flash flood more than a year ago, the governor’s office announced Wednesday. But a shortage of available contractors and a need for documentation may be hampering efforts to distribute more money.

The money, part of an $11.4 million state budget appropriation, is intended to help with rebuilding in the Buchanan County community, where dozens of homes were destroyed and scores more were severely damaged by rising water and mudslides in August 2021. One person died.

Few property owners carried flood insurance, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied a request to provide them with financial help to rebuild. The rebuilding that has been completed to date has been funded primarily through private donations, with work done by volunteers.

Southwest Virginia floods

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

The General Assembly during its 2022 session voted to include $11.4 million in the state budget for emergency assistance. The fund is managed by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, which spent much of this summer and fall putting together a framework for taking applications and disbursing the money.

The application process finally opened in early November. While an initial information session drew a crowd, the Buchanan County Department of Social Services has received fewer applications than expected, said Marci Watson, the department’s director.

“We were shocked,” she said Wednesday. “We thought we would really be bombarded.” 

They’ve since discovered two sticking points, she said.

Property owners who spent their own money to buy supplies or pay contractors must be able to provide documentation of those expenses to be reimbursed, she said. But they didn’t know that at the time and might not have saved the paperwork.

And owners who have held off on having work done must submit estimates from contractors in order to receive a payout from the state fund – a process that has been hampered by continuing pandemic-related labor shortages, Watson said.

“They just can’t find contractors to come and get the estimates,” she said. “We’re working on trying to resolve that, but to date we still don’t have a resolution yet.”

Barbara Blankenship Coleman, center front, is the first recipient of compensation for damage to her property during the devastating 2021 Hurley flood. To the left is Marci Watson, executive director of the Buchanan County Department of Social Services, which is administering the distribution of an $11 million state assistance fund; at right is Denise McGeorge, DSS program coordinator. In the back are Coleman’s two sons, Robert Burns Blankenship and Timothy Eugene Blankenship. Courtesy of Buchanan County DSS and The Voice newspaper.

Watson said she believes that there are families that want to apply but are waiting for a contractor or are trying to collect receipts.

Another round of payouts has been approved and will be disbursed to property owners Thursday, she said.

Department of Housing and Community Development spokesperson Alexis Carey said via email that it has received 65 applications. Fifteen have been processed and paid out.

“We are currently working with applicants to complete their applications,” Carey said, but did not respond more specifically to a question about what is being done to help those who are struggling with documentation or contractor availability.

The guidelines for the flood relief program, which lay out how residents can apply for assistance, say this: “The Program requires the least burdensome documentation possible, while adhering to programmatic, state, and federal guidelines.”  

Meanwhile, residents of the Whitewood area, on the other side of Buchanan County, are waiting to see if they will receive similar state aid after flash flooding wiped out parts of their community in July, less than a year after the Hurley disaster. Thirty-three structures were destroyed, and dozens more were damaged. As in Hurley, FEMA declined to provide assistance to individual homeowners, few of whom have received any kind of insurance payout.

To date, about $800,000 in donations has been collected for Whitewood’s rebuilding, according to an online dashboard maintained by United Way of Southwest Virginia, and volunteer crews have spent months cleaning out and rebuilding homes. 

Gov. Glenn Youngkin last week called for an additional $11 million in emergency funds for Buchanan County flood victims to be added to the two-year state budget. The General Assembly will consider that request when it convenes next month.

Youngkin and others have said they believe that the system established for the Hurley fund will make future payouts faster. 

Watson said Whitewood residents who have seen their neighbors in Hurley finally start to receive state aid continue to ask about when that kind of help will come their way. 

“Unfortunately the only thing we can tell them is that right now, there’s hope but there’s no confirmation yet,” she said.

Her staff is also giving them practical advice: “From the beginning, we’ve tried to tell everybody to be proactive in saving receipts for any type of work that’s being done – try to save those, take pictures, have documentation. Because if funds do come available, you will need those.

“And that’s information we didn’t have for the Hurley residents.”

Megan Schnabel

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