The new leader of the Greater Kanawha Long-term Recovery Committee was on her way out of West Virginia when the June flood struck her hometown of Clendenin.
Susan Jack and her teenage daughter were moving to Dayton, Ohio. Jack, a single mother with a master’s degree in industrial safety and experience owning a business, said she wanted to be somewhere with a better economy.
“I just got tired of beating my head against the wall trying to make a good living,” Jack said.
Her plans changed, though, soon after June 23, when floodwaters ravaged the state, killing 23 people and destroying countless homes.
“I felt like anybody that was willing should stay and help ...” Jack said. “We’ve got a whole community to rebuild here. If everybody bails we don’t have much future.”
Jack and her daughter were staying in an apartment temporarily, keeping their things in storage lockers along the Elk River. They were waiting to move until her daughter finished summer school before they went to Dayton.
The night the flood hit, Jack and a cousin carried her elderly aunt through knee-deep water. They stayed the night in a Go-Mart parking lot.
She remembers driving through the town the first time after the waters receded.
“When I got over into town, it was like something out of ‘The Walking Dead,’” Jack said. “Everybody was in shock.”
It wasn’t until a few days later she remembered her things in the storage locker. She and a friend went to check on it.
“I said, ‘Shut it, just close it,” Jack said, recalling her ruined things. “And I turned around and walked out.”
You can’t cry about it, she said.
“There were a lot of people that were a lot more worse off than I was,” she said.
Jack began her service to the devastated community long before she was hired last month as the executive director of the committee. She started by mucking houses and basements and doing whatever else she could for people. Her personal Facebook page helped her coordinate donations and volunteers.
She teamed up with electrician Tony Moles to help restore power. She would listen for generators at night so she knew which areas still needed power. She would set electric poles where they were needed and have them ready for the electricians to hook up.
When the committee’s previous director, Mike Shinn, resigned to get back to his full-time job operating Missions Academy Ministry, Jack decided to put in her resume and was chosen for the post.
It was a lot of the same work she was already doing, she said.
“I typically had one crew at a time in town,” she said. “I had them split out to five locations, but one crew at a time. With the long-term recovery committee, I’ve got three crews in town split to probably three or four different locations. So it’s basically what I was doing on steroids.”
Jack has been given the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 2017 Phoenix Award for Outstanding Contributions to Disaster Recovery By a Volunteer. She and her daughter will go to Washington, D.C., at the end of the month for the awards ceremony.
“She’s a real nice girl and helped out a lot of people,” said Sidney Oliver, a longtime member of the Clendenin Town Council. “She’s doing a real nice job.”
Oliver said he would have liked to have seen Jack run for mayor this year. Jack would have liked that, too. But, even though she’s lived in the area on and off all her life, she had only recently moved inside town limits when she bought a flooded home near the downtown area.
A town ordinance requires mayoral candidates to have lived in the town for a full year before the filing period for the election. An effort from Jack and her supporters to get the law changed ultimately failed, she said.
After she and her daughter decided to stay, a flooded homeowner told Jack she was looking to get out of the area. Jack bought the home with her mom and dad’s home equity and has been fixing it.
“It’s not a gift from them,” she said of her parents. “It’s a loan, and I have to pay them back.”
Jack’s job at the Clearon plant in South Charleston had ended just after the flood, so she’s been volunteering her time over the last nine months. She said she’s tapped out all her reserves helping with flood recovery.
“Some people think I’m crazy, but I felt I have a great resume, I can make it back some day,” she said.
She said she did it for the others — the older people in Clendenin and those with less education and experience who aren’t as fortunate.
Recovery work continues in Clendenin, where volunteer crews are still doing home repairs. Many people still need help, she said. She encourages anyone there affected by the flood to touch base with the group and to fill out an intake form if they haven’t yet.
In some ways, the town is showing signs of hope, though. Two businesses — a towing business and a hardware store, have opened in the past couple weeks, Jack said Sunday. A dentistry office that flooded is set to reopen.
The town’s first Mexican restaurant is set to open soon on Main Street. It was Jack who encouraged the owner to open it there, in a space that flooded, and then helped with restoring it.
“I remember telling him, I said, ‘Please look beyond the mess. There’s a vision here. Please look beyond the mess,’” Jack said.
Julio’s will open on Main Street in the next couple weeks, she said.
Jack is encouraged by the businesses opening. She wants to see the positive momentum continue. Recovery won’t happen overnight; it could take years, she said.
“All those are major steps forward, and I’m a driver,” she said. “I’m not going anywhere. I will stay here until things are back to normal. The goal is to be better than it ever was before.”
To reach the Greater Kanawha Long-Term Recovery Committee, call 304-539-9399, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or see the group’s Facebook page.
Reach Lori Kersey at
304-348-1240 or follow
@LoriKerseyWV on Twitter.