One year after deadly WV flood, there are still 'tremendous needs'

LORI KERSEY | Gazette-Mail photos
Bobbi Keiffer sits on the porch of her Clendenin-area home. A year ago, Keiffer and her family escaped a massive flood with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Volunteers from a recovery team from Dayton, Ohio, work on Keiffer’s house.

Bobbi Keiffer hates to hear it rain. So does her 15-year-old son, Tyler.

It's easy to understand why. They lost everything they owned a year ago in the June 2016 flood that led to the deaths of at least two-dozen people and destroyed thousands of houses across central West Virginia. She, her husband and Tyler escaped from their Clendenin-area home with little more than the clothes on their backs.

Volunteers are still helping with repairs to their mobile home, where water came up about halfway to the ceiling.

“We had to gut the whole thing,” she said. “Take it down to the floor joists and just start all over, basically.”

On that fateful afternoon a year ago, Keiffer had been out to pick up her husband at work. The couple hadn't been home for 15 minutes when they noticed the normally calm creek that runs in front of their home had flooded their van.

RELATED: See 22 interactive photos of flood-struck WV locations

“Next thing we know, there's a red Chevy Cavalier floating down the road,” she said. “[It] runs into a telephone pole across the street. We didn't know if there was anyone in it. We had no idea.”

The family fled their home when the water receded briefly, only to rise again.

“We just took what we had on our backs and we dipped and dove through the tree [in the front yard] and stood in the road for the longest time until the water got up to where we were at,” she said.

They took shelter with neighbors, staying with their daughter for three days and then with Keiffer's parents in Amma until November, when they moved back into the home.

The family, along with their town, is on its way back to normalcy, but the road hasn't been an easy one.

“We haven't made it far, but we will,” Keiffer said, as the tears started to fall.

Like Keiffer, many people in the Clendenin and Elkview areas still need help, said Susan Jack, director of the Greater Kanawha Long-term Recovery Committee.

“The great fallacy is that people outside of this area think that we're back and we're OK,” she said. “They see things like [Clendenin's new Mexican restaurant], which is very nice, and you know we've gotten it up and open, and that's all great, but there are still tremendous needs.”

Jack, a Clendenin local, doesn't go far in town without other people asking her about cases. Her cellphone rings often. That's a good thing, she said. She wants flood recovery to be on peoples' minds.

“Our case managers now are loaded up pretty heavy on cases, but there's still a lot of people out there who haven't even been assigned a case manager yet,” Jack said. “We can't assign them a case manager until we close out the current cases that are being worked. So that's been the big push.”

The case managers' tasks could be anything from coordinating construction work and buying needed furniture for flooded households to helping families relocate, she said.

Keiffer and her husband had, at first, tried to make repairs to their home on their own.

“We've just been kind of going as we can,” she said. “But ... I have a lot of health issues and my husband works until 5:30 in the evening, so it's kind of rough trying to — and financially, of course.”

The family owns the home but didn't officially have the deed in their name at the time of the flood. They got $5,000 for their personal belongings and, because of the deed problem, $1,500 in rental assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Much of that money went to buying a new vehicle to get Keiffer's husband to and from his job as a flooring installer, she said.

When the Greater Kanawha Long-term Recovery Committee called to see what it could do to help, Keiffer said her husband turned the offer down, at first.

“I think he felt there were worse out there,” she said, “and I think he thought he could do it all, and he can't.”

Like Keiffer, many in the flood-affected areas of Clendenin and Elkview are relying on volunteers for help, too.

Jack said she expects to have at least three volunteer groups each week throughout the summer. During one week in July, the long-term recovery committee will host four large volunteer groups, she said. That same week, another organization is bringing in between 400 and 500 youth volunteers, she said.

Overall, Jack said, morale in the flooded areas is mixed.

“Now that summer's here, volunteers are flowing back in again and people are seeing work being done,” Jack said. “That's a good thing. That's a positive thing. On the flip side of that, you've got a lot of people still waiting for help, and frustration levels can build in regard to that. And I understand that. We're trying to get to them as quickly as we can.”

Late last month, a symbolic ground-breaking ceremony was held for new houses to be built in Kanawha County. Several organizations that have been working on flood recovery have the funding for up to 10 house rebuilds. Now that the funding is in place, the next step is finding organizations to rebuild the homes. So far, five families have been selected to get new houses, Jack said.

Jack said she fears that the longer recovery drags on, volunteer efforts will begin to wane. She said that, to combat that, she's developing relationships with the groups, some of which have made several trips to West Virginia to help.

“We're still years away from total recovery,” Jack said. “I don't think any of us want to recover to where we were pre-flood anyway. I think we want to be way better.

“We still need volunteers. We're going to need them again next year.”

On a recent Friday, volunteers from the Miami Valley Disaster Recovery team, of the Dayton, Ohio, area, were helping install the electrical wiring and drywall in the Keiffers' mobile home. It was their second day at the Keiffer house and the team's sixth trip to West Virginia since the flood. They plan to come back, deputy team chief Keith Simpson said.

Keiffer's home still needs work. A bathroom is the only room the family members completed mostly on their own, she said. Keiffer said she's very thankful for the volunteers who have been helping.

“We just take it one day at a time,” Keiffer said. “That's all we can do.”

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1240 or follow @LoriKerseyWV on Twitter.

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