When the Cherry River rose and floodwaters poured off the hillsides on June 24, submerging much of the downtown and streaming through homes, the little West Virginia mountain town of Richwood was between mayors. Afterwards, state and county emergency services were nowhere to be found. The town of barely 2,000 people, lying in the path of a deluge that overwhelmed portions of the state, seemed to be on its own.
Townspeople rallied, and a state official stepped in briefly to lead until the mayor-elect, Bob Henry Baber, could take over. The situation was dire for a town already long impoverished by the demise of the coal industry. The sewer system was largely destroyed. Water intakes were compromised. Roads were torn up. Ninety residents of a nursing and rehabilitation center had been evacuated by staff and neighbors amid waist-deep rising waters; the building was later abandoned and 130 jobs lost. Only 5 percent of homeowners had flood insurance. Already a food desert, the town’s last place to buy groceries, Dollar General, had been ravaged. Experts were calling it a 1,000-year flood.
“We didn’t lose any lives … but we’ve had lives that are ruined,” said Baber.
Within hours of the flooding, a dozen utility workers from the town of Hurricane, West Virginia, more than two hours away, came with everything from a dump truck and jetter to a 1,000-gallon water buffalo. They got water and sewer to most of the town up and running that same evening, and to more people later. Then they cleaned out churches, community centers, and houses, staying six days in all, the guests of a church miles away. Hurricane later sent four more crew members and three police officers. Its mayor, Scott Edwards, himself came down a week later and helped clean out debris under houses.
Hurricane was ready to help because Edwards had set up a mobile response team to handle infrastructure emergencies. Richwood was its first mission outside town. Edwards chose Richwood, figuring the towns most damaged – Clendenin and Elk River – would be taken care of because they were close to Charleston, the state capital. After dispatching the team, he raised money for Richwood by selling 1,600 T-shirts the city usually gives away to residents to mark July 4. Once the word got out, people in Hurricane started paying $100 a shirt. Then he sold shirts for $500, $1,000, and $1,500, $1,501, and $1,502 in succession. He raised $35,000 before his supply ran out.
“They went like hotcakes,” he said.
Three days after the flood, Mike “Doug” Russell, a construction contractor who was raised in Richwood, arrived from 200 miles away in Virginia with track hoes, end loaders, and five heavy-equipment operators, including his two sons. His brother, John Roman, who has a utility company, came with his son, uncle, several employees, and equipment. The group worked for 10 days removing debris, including houses that had slid into others. Russell came back alone twice for another 10 days to help manage the recovery.
Meantime, supplies started pouring into Richwood by the truck and trailer load. They arrived from all over West Virginia (about 10 Hurricane residents came to aid members of their devastated sister church) and from as far as Arizona and Texas. A former Richwood resident in Colorado with disaster relief experience drove 25 hours straight to get there. It seemed that anyone who had ever lived in Richwood was returning to help their family or the community, either by dropping off donations, volunteering, or both. Baber estimates 200 people returned.
The middle school’s large gymnasium, known as the Red Gym, became the holding area for supplies and staging point for distribution to flood victims. Things were coming in “much faster than we could put it out,” says Red Gym coordinator Kissy Smallwood. In the first week, she said, volunteers – 30 to 60 locals and out-of-towners worked from the gym on any given day — unloaded aid from about 180 vehicles. Thirty were tractor-trailers from places like the United Way, the United Methodist Church, and Paralink Coal Services. The rest were mostly people’s trucks, vans, and trailers . The Red Gym’s bleachers filled to overflowing with food, water, baby items, toiletries, bleach, mops, fans, clothing, and more.
“The outpouring is amazing,” said George, a local man who unloaded trucks till 10 pm one night.
Volunteers immediately started loading supplies onto pickups pulling trailers and driving them to half a dozen smaller communities as much as 40 miles away. “They don’t have anything,” said Mayor Baber. “It’s really great that we, this destitute little town, are in a position to help our friends and neighbors.”
In one remote area, Williams River, volunteers went almost door to door delivering provisions, Smallwood said. In other communities, they left them at a church, volunteer fire department, or tents.
Dale Rush, who has a farm here in Nicholas County, stopped one day at the Red Gym for supplies for his eighth trip on his own to Williams River. He called looking after his neighbors “part of my God-given duty.” Nicholas is 78.
Volunteers also went door to door in Richwood with supplies. In addition, many people came to the Red Gym to pick up items. But the pile of goods was never depleted.
Former mayor Jeromy Rose started a Facebook page called “I am Richwood” to coordinate relief efforts. The page drew thousands. Smallwood posted updated lists of what items were currently needed to the Facebook page. Companies, organizations, and the public used the lists. “Some of the trucks that came would call and I would share those lists with them,” Smallwood emailed.
One beneficiary of her updates was a former resident of Richwood, a woman who set up an Amazon account so that people anywhere could use it to order supplies for Richwood. As a result, most days a UPS truck delivered packages near the Red Gym. A volunteer said some senders put notes inside.
Asked about the state’s help, Baber said the Office of Emergency Services didn’t arrive for 11 days, but the National Guard was “incredible.” As for FEMA, he was told it showed up faster than usual, but he found making sense of the agency’s complexity overwhelming . “In the middle of a crisis…,” he said, “it’s very hard to process acronyms that come by you in waves.” (EDITOR’S NOTE: Mayor Baber’s expands on his remarks about FEMA in a comment below the story.)
He termed the federal response “par for the course,” but warned it “could be subpar here, because we are in a third world, third-rate economy.” FEMA, he said, “is playing by the rules and only helping replace what was already there.” Referring to the fact that conditions in Appalachian coal communities are far behind other parts of the country, he insisted, “FEMA needs to make destitute communities whole. Not replace substandard with substandard.”