WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — Nine months after the June flood sent 11 feet of water through her White Sulphur Springs home, completely submerging it, Susie Rock is moving into someplace new.
“It’s beautiful in there,” Rock said on a recent Friday morning, sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch of her new home in Hope Village.
Before any of the houses were built, Rock put in her application for the spot in the housing development, where volunteer workers are using donated materials to build homes for flood survivors. She planned to finally move in last week.
Rock, 69, narrowly escaped death during the flood by taking shelter in a neighbor’s two-story home. She knows things could have been a lot worse. The neighbor’s house moved 30 yards but didn’t completely wash away because of trees and electric lines that kept it in place, she said.
“Thank God — we would have been dead because the house would have hit something, broken apart into a million pieces and we would have been in there,” Rock said.
She’s been meeting her new neighbors, but she already has something important in common with them — they survived the same flood.
“They have adopted the feeling that this is just a new part of their lives,” Rock said. “They lost everything. It’s time to start over, and they’re not too bitter about the whole thing because people that are bitter have a poor life.”
It’s a feeling Rock identifies with.
“My philosophy is ‘OK, this happened; choose again,’” she said. “What’s my next choice in life?”
The work of getting survivors into permanent housing continues in Greenbrier County, which was arguably hit the hardest during the June 2016 flood. Fourteen people from Greenbrier County died. More than 200 homes were destroyed in White Sulphur Springs alone.
So far, 24 homes have been built or are under construction in the housing development. As work continues at Hope Village, leaders of Homes for White Sulphur Springs and others are preparing to help the next wave of flood survivors: renters.
Maggie Hutchison, executive director of Homes for White Sulphur Springs, said officials have known there was a need to do more for renters who lost their homes in the flood. Storm-Aid, from the Mennonite Disaster Service, built the first homes, but it, as a policy, build only for homeowners.
“There are faith-based groups that build for renters, but [Storm-Aid doesn’t] build for renters,” Hutchison said. “That’s their model, and we get it and we respect it, but we were worried about what we could do for renters.”
Beginning in April, workers from the Tennessee-based Appalachia Service Project will start construction on 13 homes for individuals who lost the homes they were renting in the flood, Hutchison said.
The United Way of the Greenbrier Valley is giving $250,000 to be matched with funds from Homes for White Sulphur Springs to build the properties.
“My board and I wanted to continue our involvement with flood recovery and we knew that there was an underserved population who still needed help, and those people were renting their homes when the flood hit, which left so many people ... legitimately homeless,” said United Way director Erin Hurst.
Some of those who live in the houses will be able to buy their homes. The flood survivors will buy the materials for their homes, and some will get assistance from the United Way, Hutchison said. The labor on the houses is a gift from the Appalachia Service Project.
So far, eight families or individuals have been approved for the renters’ program, and seven of those will purchase their homes, Hutchison said.
Flood recovery leaders also want to rehabilitate some of the flooded properties in the county to be used as rental properties. So far the group does not have any specific properties in mind. Any rental properties developed through the program will be managed by Mainstreet White Sulphur Springs.
“Our hope is that we can find some decent properties that are out of the floodplain that can be rehabbed by these faith-based groups,” Hutchison said. “But it’s only going to make sense if we can buy them for a small amount of money.”
Hurst said the Rental Renewal Program moved quickly from an idea to fruition.
“Unfortunately, to our flood survivors, it doesn’t feel that fast,” she said. “But we’re working as quickly as we can to get people back in their homes.”
The perception that the area isn’t recovering quickly enough is something those working on the issue face a lot, said Kayla M. McCoy, program coordinator for the Greater Greenbrier Long-Term Recovery Committee. Actually, the county is “leaps and bounds” ahead of where it was, she said.
‘There are still people who want to help’
Recovery work changes daily, McCoy said. One day, volunteer coordination is the focus, and other days are focused on economic development, she said.
“We have a lot of irons in the fire,” McCoy said.
Lately, McCoy is focused on coordinating volunteers, she said. Between March and August, 38 volunteer groups with nearly 800 volunteers are scheduled to work in Greenbrier County, she said.
Many of those groups are those who came right after the flood to muck out houses and are coming back to help with the rebuilding process, she said.
“What I find so amazing about this is that there are still people who want to help, almost a year later,” Hurst said. “There have been several disasters that have happened since ours, but, for some reason, we have these amazing people who want to come and help.”
“I think it really speaks to how quickly we were able to organize because people don’t want to come back to chaos,” Hurst said.
The county still has a need for skilled volunteers, said Arron Seams, an AmeriCorps VISTA worker for the Long-Term Recovery Committee.
“We need folks that know how to frame a house or to hang and finish drywall and do those other sort of construction jobs that are needed,” Seams said. “Whereas, in the beginning, it’s a lot easier to use those people who may not be as skilled to use a push broom to get mud out of home, that sort of thing.”
Now, volunteer teams contact the committee a few weeks in advance so the teams’ skills can be matched with a project, and the materials and funding can be in place when a crew arrives.
St. Thomas Episcopal Church in White Sulphur Springs, where Seams works in an office, still serves volunteers lunch Monday through Friday. That surprises some of the volunteers who have worked recovery after other disasters, he said.
“I think that we kind of feel that it’s the least that we can do for these folks that are taking time out of their lives to rebuild our community,” Seams said. “That we can at least give them a meal a day.”
The most important thing the groups helping the flood survivors need now is unrestricted funds to be put where the need is the greatest, McCoy said. McCoy said there’s also a need for a statewide assessment of how big the need for home repair and replacement still is. When asking for donations, it’s important to know what the need is still, she said.
“We need to know what’s left because we can’t ask for a dollar amount of money without knowing what the need is,” McCoy said.
‘You can’t heal’
As the anniversary of the flood draws near, officials in Greenbrier County are making preparations to see that those who died are remembered.
The Mill Hill Drive area in White Sulphur Springs is where the majority of the loss of life happened during the flood. Several survivors traded their lots on Mill Hill Drive for a lot at Hope Village. The lots at Mill Hill Drive are being made into a memorial park called Brad Paisley Community Park, named in honor of the West Virginia native and country singer’s contributions to flood recovery statewide.
Two of the houses damaged in the flood, but still standing, will serve as community buildings. A pavilion is also being built there.
One section of the park will feature a garden to honor Belinda Scott, a White Sulphur Springs resident whose house exploded when the flood water broke a gas pipe in her home. She clung to a tree for six hours before being rescued and ultimately dying in a hospital.
“She loved bumblebees, so we’re gonna have a bumblebee garden,” Hutchison said. “And we’re doing a butterfly garden.”
McCoy, who lives half a mile from where the park is planned, said it will be an important part of the healing process for the community.
“If it just sat there and it was undeveloped — with the foundations of the homes — and been a reminder, a constant reminder of what had happened, you can’t heal, you know?” McCoy said. “And so, I just love it.”
Reach Lori Kersey at
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