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2016 Flood: Lifelong Caldwell resident reflects and rebuilds

By WENDY HOLDREN

The Register-Herald

CALDWELL, W.Va. — Up the freshly constructed steps and past a small covered front porch, William “Bill” Defibaugh sits on a plush, tan colored couch –  the new home smell lingers.

Bill Defibaugh moved into his new home in Caldwell June 19. Mennonite Disaster services along with Neighbors Loving Neighbors helps build his new home after his was destroyed in the flood.
(Photo by Jenny Harnish)

He is surrounded by photos – of his three children, of his late wife, of volunteers who helped construct his home – hanging on the walls, framed on the bookshelves and protected behind plastic in bound albums.

The 72-year-old Caldwell man considers himself lucky to still have his photos, a luxury many Greenbrier County residents didn’t have after the June 23, 2016, flood.

“I’ve lived here all my life,” Defibaugh said of the Caldwell community. “My mom and dad moved in when I was a month old.”

The middle of seven siblings, Defibaugh said their original home was constructed out of old sawmill lumber. He still remembers the one electric light in the four rooms of the house. He also remembers time spent outside with his family on the porch.

He remembers meeting the woman he would marry, Rachel, one day when she came home from school with his sister. He walked her home that night.

He remembers giving her his 1962 White Sulphur Spring High School class ring, which she soon lost. When she found it, she offered to return it to him, but he told her to keep it. She lost it again.

The two married when she was 15 years old. He was 18. They moved into Defibaugh’s childhood home, just a few feet away from the bank of Howard Creek.

Their home flooded in the 1970s. Water climbed 3 feet up the interior walls of the home. They decided to rebuild, 6 feet higher, and filled in around it, creating a basement area. They also purchased flood insurance.

They continued to add on – a big family room, another bedroom and another bathroom. They had two children who passed away just a few weeks after birth. They also had three surviving children, Steve, Margaret and Bill.

The 1985 flood came and went. It didn’t reach their house. Same for the flood in the 1990s.

“It never came close to being at the house. I thought we were safe.”

On their 35th wedding anniversary in 1997, while they were on a trip to Nags Head,  N.C., Defibaugh got a phone call from a neighbor who was digging a gas line. They had found his old class ring. They cleaned it up, and it looked as good as new.

They continued their lives together until May 9, 2016, when Rachel passed away. They would have celebrated their 54th anniversary just nine days later.

“It’s time for me to go.”

When the June 23 rains came pouring down, Defibaugh didn’t think anything of it.

He drove out to White Sulphur Springs, but his daughter, Margaret, and her husband Brian Dodd, called him and told him to come back. Quick.

“When I got back, houses were floating already.”

He started moving vehicles and mowers to higher ground. His wife’s old handicap-accessible van needed moved, but it first needed a jump start.

As he tried to save a few possessions, including his photos and a bookshelf he’d made years before, he watched his well-known cabbage patch and the other vegetables in his garden wash away.

“The intensity of the rain picked up, and I said, OK, it’s time for me to go.”

He left with Margaret and Brian until it was safe to return. When he came back, he found the force of the water had washed the basement wall entirely out. The house was sagging in the middle. The walls had collapsed.

Unfortunately, after having flood insurance since the 1970s, Defibaugh had dropped his coverage just days before the June flood. Premiums had increased to the point where he could no longer afford it.

Not only was his lifelong home gone, but also his lifelong church – Caldwell Pentecostal Holiness Church. He was devastated when he learned it had flooded and would have to be demolished.

“That was one of the hardest things – having to tear the church down. I was gone when they tore the house down. I’m glad I was gone.”

His wife’s funeral was the last ever held at Caldwell Pentecostal. His daughter Margaret married Brian there. All their kids were dedicated there.

Brian, who owns All Construction, helped demolish the church. He did it with mixed emotions.

“I had to look at it not as the end, but the start of a new beginning,” Brian shared.

Caldwell has transformed. The houses. The flow of the creek. The lay of the land.

“It doesn’t feel like where I started courting (Margaret),” Brian said. “I could see across the creek and see in her bedroom window from where I lived.”

He recalled fondly, “Everybody knew Bill because of his cabbage.”

New beginnings were just around the corner for the family though.

A new child, a great grandchild for Defibaugh, was born Aug. 3. Their church was welcomed into another facility for services.

And Defibaugh was connected with an organization called Neighbors Loving Neighbors, which helped flood victims in the aftermath.

He was connected with a case manager, who helped organize volunteers from the Mennonite Disaster Service to start construction on a new home for him.

For the first few months, he stayed with Margaret and Brian, but FEMA soon provided a trailer for him.

Just less than a year after the devastating floods, his home was fully constructed. A dedication ceremony was held June 9, and he started moving in.

“It’s already starting to feel like home.”

He kept a scrapbook with photos, signatures and messages from the volunteers who helped build his new home. He said volunteers from at least four countries – Germany, Albania, Japan and Canada – had a hand in the construction.

He’d told himself after the 1970s flood, if it ever happened again, he would never rebuild.

“But then I thought about the community. This is my life – this town, these people.”

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