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Susan Johnson: 'VICE' examines Richwood flood (Opinion)

Susan Johnson

Susan Johnson

Small town disaster recovery — particularly that of Richwood — was the topic of a VICE News Tonight feature on HBO last month.

VICE News is an internet media outlet with 3.3 million subscribers as well as more than 1.5 billion views, according to the Global Journalist.

HBO picked up VICE News as one of its regular offerings in 2015. VICE News — whose reporters and editors have done in-depth reports about places as varied as Ferguson, Missouri and the Middle East — has won two Peabody awards.

The title of the six and a half minute segment is “Small Town America Isn’t Prepared for Natural Disasters,” which can be viewed on VICE’s YouTube channel. That video has been viewed 39,000 times.

The central “character” of the piece is Dr. Lloyd Adkins, Richwood’s dentist for the past 40 years and current president of the Nicholas County Commission. The producers spent a day in Dr. Adkins’s dental office on Main Street and included clips of him in his scrubs, working on patients. He also rode around town with the VICE reporter and sat down for an interview.

Dr. Adkins told the cameras how he was involved in the first hours after the flood to try and restore the basic amenities — water, power, food. He explained that he and others — who were getting no help from the county and state — relied on themselves to start solving problems. I was there and I remember it well. The county emergency services director resigned days after the flood. No one knew where to turn. So people started picking up their phones and called anyone they knew with a chain saw, a back hoe, a bulldozer. It would be weeks before FEMA officials arrived on the scene.

As the HBO segment pointed out, “Richwoodians were doing what people in a small town are so good at: calling on their community ... [FEMA rules] don’t often fit the reality of life in small towns. One rule bars the use of FEMA funds to enrich family and friends, making it hard to bid out contracts.”

But as local entrepreneur Chuck Tousseing explains in the video: “Richwood is a small town; 1,800 people. We’re in a natural disaster. We need to get things fixed. You’re in rural Appalachia and [if] you’re going to find someone who does some job that you need done, they’re probably going to be a friend.”

State Auditor J.B. McCuskey, who made a very public display of his office’s findings of alleged wrongdoing on the part of city officials, was not interviewed by the VICE producers, but his Deputy, Stephen Connolly was.

“They did not have a good system of accountability,” Connolly said. “There was no checks and balances to make sure money wasn’t going towards friends — to families, associates, high school buddies.” When reporter Josh Hersh asked —- “Are you confident that crimes were committed in Richwood?” McConnelly said, “Oh, absolutely, yeah, unequivocally.”

Adkins agrees malfeasance probably took place, but he doesn’t believe the actions were criminal. The commingling of funds — “robbing Peter to pay Paul” as Adkins called it — was wrong, he said. But he was adamant to the VICE reporter that none of it was malicious. “Those people busted their butts,” he said.

The VICE News story couldn’t address all the complex issues related to the 2016 flood, but the producers did a pretty good job of drilling down on two central issues: The state did little to help ordinary citizens in Richwood and other little towns to work with FEMA, and that consultants are the “ambulance chasers” of the disaster recovery industry. With no one to turn to for advice on how to deal with the complex ins and outs of working with FEMA, Richwood officials felt they had no choice but to hire two consulting firms for a total price tag of $250,000. Some of that advice has turned out to be questionable.

I do take issue with one statement made in the HBO story: Richwood — considering all the town has had to contend with — is not “bitterly divided.” But factions within Nicholas County are. Hard feelings and mistrust are still driving decisions made by our elected officials at every level. Instead of digging for answers that might expose where mistakes were made, the Legislature suspended any more meetings of the joint statewide flood recovery oversight committee. Politics is muddying the whole sad scenario.

Three years have passed since the flood, and still no plans have been approved for the replacement schools. Bitter feelings still linger over the school consolidation controversy, in large part because of the lengths Richwooders went to save their schools. That may be why there are factions in Nicholas County and even in the state who want to see Richwood go under. But I maintain that neither our state nor our county can afford to throw a whole community away — not one with the strength and spirit of Richwood.

Susan Matthis Johnson has written extensively about the Flood of 2016 in her column “My Side of the Mountain” in the Nicholas Chronicle.

Funerals for Friday, September 20, 2019

Barton, Richard - 3 p.m., Donel C. Kinnard Memorial State Veterans Cemetery, Dunbar.

Birthisel, Avis - 11 a.m., Casdorph & Curry Funeral Home, St. Albans.

Call, Denver - Noon, Allen Funeral Home, Hurricane.

Dearien, Tommie - Noon, Stevens & Grass Funeral Home, Malden.

Fletcher, Joanna - 1 p.m., Curry Funeral Home, Alum Creek.

Keeney, Steven - 2 p.m., Keith Full Gospel Church, Keith.

May, Rosa - 2 p.m., Bartlett - Nichols Funeral Home, St. Albans.

Morris, Linda - 1 p.m., Deal Funeral Home, Point Pleasant.

Parsons, Harry - 11 a.m., Ellyson Mortuary Inc., Glenville.

Pauley, Clarence - 10 a.m., Cunningham Memorial Park, St. Albans.

Pino, Patricia - 11 a.m., Bradley FreeWill Baptist Church.

Rogers, Marilyn - 11 a.m., Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, South Charleston.

Satterfield, Kenneth - 5 p.m., Satterfield residence, 1161 Daniels Run Road, Millstone.