By Don Smith
WV Press Executive Director
It’s been four days since the flood. State and national officials have declared much of the state a disaster area. The recovery has started.
But when will the flood recovery end?
We should not consider the flood recovery finished until the elderly women stop crying.
Saturday, at Capital High School, which is serving as a Red Cross Shelter for flood victims, elderly residents were being transported to the shelter by National Guard trucks, by neighbors and – for the lucky ones – in their own vehicles that had somehow escaped the flood waters.
Exhausted, they unloaded onto the plaza at CHS: a mass of dirty faces, gray hair, damp clothing and mud-caked pants. Slowly they began moving across the plaza and up the steps to the shelter in the school’s gymnasium. Most were oddly dressed, wearing a mix of sleep wear, summer, and winter clothing, clearly having grabbed whatever stitch of clothing they could during their rush to escape the rising flood waters.
Many people were barefoot, struggling to walk across the hot, concrete of the plaza. Volunteers began gathering shoes, scandals, flip-fops and asking if they could help.
It seemed necessary to ask, “Are you alright?” On hearing the question, one man, while helping his wife navigate across the plaza, offered a brave smile, “Yeah, we’re OK.” Well into his 70s, he was barefoot, wearing shorts and a long-sleeved flannel shirt on a 90 degree day.
Slowly his wife, a small woman who leaned on her tired husband’s arm for support, looked up, tears filling her eyes, “We’ve lost everything.”
Everything was possessions, home and hope. The plaza was full of families who had lost everything.
Putting his arm around his wife, as if to protect her from the reality she was expressing, the husband said, “We’re just so embarrassed.”
Embarrassed at being helpless, probably for the first time in 70 plus years. The flood water washed away the hope and security of the elderly population it found along the banks of the Elk River, the Greenbrier River and other rivers and streams.
Rebuilding and starting over should be left to the young. Where do the elderly find the strength and resources to tear out flood damaged appliances and furnishings? How do they bulldoze the remains of their home and lay a new foundation? How does a 70-year-old couple start over?
So many of the victims in the flooded communities are elderly, in ill health and on fixed incomes. They aren’t physically able to rebuild or emotionally prepared to deal with government agencies, insurance companies or contractors.
They need more than clorox, bottled water, used clothing, advice and ideas. They need help. Real arm-around-your-shoulder, I’ll-be-here-tomorrow-too help.
They need family, friends, church members, volunteers and government workers to physically help them. To sit with them, explain to them, have patience with them, and to help them start over. They’ll need help rebuilding — someone to clean or pound a nail — or finding a new home. Not shelters, hotels, FEMA trailers or rooms in a family member’s home, but some residence they can rent or own. Someplace they can again call their home.
West Virginia will not recover from this flood until we join together to help all these victims … not until the elderly women stop crying.