I’ve been trying to write about this for weeks, without much luck. Putting words and definitions and feelings to the mess that’s in my head seems like a futile task, one that I don’t think I’ll truly be able to accomplish. But I’m giving it my best shot. Sorry for the mess of words you’re about to read.
As some of you may have heard, there was flooding in much of West Virginia at the end of June. By many accounts, Greenbrier County was hit the hardest; specifically, the town of Rainelle and the surrounding area. Last summer, I was on staff with Appalachia Service Project in Greenbrier County. It was the first year ASP was in Greenbrier, and the four of us on staff there absolutely loved it. Each week, we hosted around 70 volunteers who spent their days working on home repair projects in the area, all with the goal of helping to bring the homes out of substandard condition. In total, we worked on fourteen homes in Rainelle and the surrounding area, completing projects that included new roofs, new floor systems, porches, siding, underpinning, and much more. Our center, where the staff lived for two months and where volunteers were housed week by week, was located right in downtown Rainelle. It was a cute little church, called Highland First Church of God. We made a lot of jokes last summer about how everything was always moist; Rainelle is a rainy place, and very humid. And our church seemed to accumulate moisture. We had our fair share of issues with mold.
But a couple weeks ago, I visited that church, and the amount of water in it was no longer a joke. The gym floor that volunteers usually slept on was coated in mud; the supply shed had been picked up and dropped back down several feet away by the floods. My purpose in visiting Rainelle, however, was not to see the center or check on the current staff. I knew that they were fine, and that ASP was taking care of them. My concern was with my homeowners from the summer before, and the community as a whole. Meg, one of my fellow staffers in Greenbrier, was also with me for the visit.
I think the events of the day that I visited Rainelle will be ingrained in my memory for the rest of my life. Without a doubt, the day was one of the hardest days I have ever experienced.
Trash was piled up on the sides of main street. Except it wasn’t trash—it was people’s possessions. For some, it was everything they had. It was merchandise from the stores that are all now closed, many for good. It was the chairs and tables from the local fast food joints and the one restaurant in town; places where we had enjoyed many meals, ice cream cones, and afternoon caffeine pick-me-ups the summer before. And all of these things; all of these things lining the sides of every street in town were wet, and soggy, and dirty, and useless. Most of the businesses right in town lost everything. Most of the people right in town lost everything. And many of them didn’t have flood insurance, as a lot of the town itself is not classified as a flood plain.
That afternoon, Meg and I visited one of our homeowners in town. The summer before, we had put a tin roof on the home to keep it dry. But her home was far from dry.
I don’t think I will ever have the words to describe the feeling of getting down on my hands and knees and spending hours scrubbing mud off of floors that had looked so beautiful the summer before. Entire floor systems that we had carefully replaced; tiling and laminate that volunteers had spent weeks, days, hours installing. But everything we did last summer—all of it was destroyed. The water had gotten four to five feet high in her home, and carried trash, oil, and mud in with it.
There was another home we chose not to even drive out to, because we already had confirmation from the current Greenbrier staff that everything on that road had been completely washed away. We had replaced the entire floor system in that home, as well.
Spending just a measly day in Rainelle left my head spinning. What do I do? What do we do?
Do we throw money at them? Send supplies? Stick cameras in their faces and write sad news stories? Post nice pictures on Facebook of ourselves mucking out homes? Write a blog post about how sad we are about the whole thing? (Hi! Here I am!)
I suggest we start here: let us drop our “holier-than-thou” attitudes. Let us remember that we are no savior; that we are all helpless in the face of a natural disaster. Instead of floating in like Prince Charming to save the damsel in distress when it suits us, or trying to rescue those who are struggling like a lifeguard pulling a downing toddler out of the kiddy pool, let us extend our hands in partnership to the mind-blowingly strong people of these small towns in Appalachia that are experiencing hardship. Let us not just ask what we can give them, or do for them, but how we can walk alongside them in their time of hardship.
Most importantly, let us not become apathetic. These small towns in Appalachia, towns like Rainelle, have a rich history. They have a history worth remembering. Rainelle was once home to the largest hardwood sawmill in the world! HOW COOL IS THAT. LITERALLY SO COOL. The Meadow River Lumber Company. Look it up.
These people and these towns have been carrying on without you noticing for decades. But now you’ve noticed. So I’ll leave you with this: Appalachia matters. These people matter. This place is not something to be forgotten or brushed aside just because it doesn’t fit nicely in a box with a bow on top. The floods are not just a news story.
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