It’s late June and I’m driving out a winding country road in northern Kanawha County. My friend and I are headed to my family’s home near Elkview (WV)—a small unincorporated community ten miles north of Charleston. It’s a wet summer evening: one of those nights where the rain oscillates between a mist and a downpour.
One of the more severe rain bursts knocked down a power line into the main road to the house just before my friend arrived. The two of us turn the car around and head north on US 119 toward Clendenin (WV), toward the back road home. Along the way to the place where the main road meets our smaller turnoff, I point out my old middle school on the right, noting the presence of new portable classrooms in the parking lot. Further up, I point out Bridge Elementary School, where I used to ride the bus to take gifted classes.
Eventually, we turn onto Jordan Creek Road—which, almost two years prior to the day, was completely underwater.
Elkview and Clendenin are two communities with the burden and privilege of being situated along the Elk River. In June 2016, the river where I spent hours playing as a child became one of my community’s worst nightmares. A
major flood caused the water to reach a record 33.37-foot depth, rushing so quickly that its many tributary streams backed up and flooded their banks.
Some homes were completely submerged in the red clay-colored water, which destroyed or damaged nearly everything it touched. At least four people died; about 500 people were trapped in the Crossings Mall shopping plaza for nearly 24 hours—their bridge across Little Sandy Creek ripped away by the rushing water.
My partner and his coworkers were some of the first journalists to respond to the flooding, traveling to rural parts of the state from Clendenin to Rupert to uncover what was happening to residents as they waited for help from FEMA. Sam Owens, a photojournalist, traveled to Jordan Creek Road to document the devastation there. Her photo (below) of a truck that seemed to have been sucked into a quagmire of mud and crushed was published in papers across the country.
In the aftermath of the flooding, former Governor Earl Ray Tomblin created a program called RISE to manage dollars allocated by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to help low-income people in communities like Jordan Creek get back into their homes. Program management was assigned to the state Department of Commerce.
Reports over the past few months have uncovered that Commerce entered into illegal contracts to help handle the management of RISE. Meanwhile, it was also uncovered that very few individuals had actually received aid through the program over the two years of its existence—so few, in fact, that HUD has expressed concerns about whether the state will be able to spend down the funds allotted to us before the deadline.
In the wake of these discoveries, nearly every member of the leadership team at the Department of Commerce resigned. Meanwhile, the effects of the slowdown in services remain very real for those who are still awaiting processing of their claim. For those who were affected by the flood, this bureaucratic bottleneck is more than an inconvenience—it’s keeping all of us from returning to some version of normal.
This processing bottleneck shows in Jordan Creek, where the community has emerged from 2016’s mud, but has not completely recovered. Most of the handful of churches that dot the seven miles between the mouth of Jordan Creek and my house have been salvaged by the time my friend and I are driving through. There’s a mixture of houses that have been saved and houses that are now too derelict to escape demolition along this expanse—some likely abandoned by former residents who were unable to foot the bill to save them without assistance.
The Crossings Mall, which is still a critical resource for the area, remained empty for over a year during legal disputes between the owner and the county over who should pay to rebuild the bridge to the site. Over the course of that year, hundreds of people lost their jobs. Thousands were forced to find other places to purchase fresh produce and other grocery items, as the Kroger remained out of reach.
Additionally, in one of the most crushing blows, the community also lost their high school. Herbert Hoover High was flooded so badly that it could not reopen. Until their new building opens, students will go to school in the portable classrooms stationed in the parking lot outside of my old middle school. The most recent estimate suggests they might start at this new facility in 2020—some four years after the flood.
Over the last two years, my community has been deprived of easy access to food, services, and a gathering place. Childhood friends and countless others have been forced to choose whether to stay or go as their main source of income near our hometown disappeared with the bridge to the plaza. At least four families will never see their loved one again. People’s worlds were torn apart, in many cases so badly that it is impossible for them to put the pieces back together on their own.
While the Legislature and local reporters work to determine what went wrong with the RISE program twenty miles away in Charleston, people in Jordan Creek are still waiting to finally be able to go home.
A Drama Unfolds
As my friend and I round out our journey, it is difficult for me to think of an explanation for how a community less than 20 miles from the Department of Commerce’s offices could be so completely ignored, particularly when nearly $150 million in funds are available to support recovery.
While locals await action from the RISE program, some of those who remain in the area are taking matters into their own hands. Volunteers from across the country have been working to help fix up local people’s homes that were damaged by the rising floodwaters. Community members in Clendenin banded together to create their own local news publication, the Clendenin Leader, to share news about the flood and upcoming community events. Others organized a Homecoming Festival, where participants raced kayaks and listened to live music in Clendenin’s downtown on the second anniversary of the flood. Per West Virginia tradition, local people are taking responsibility for improving their condition when those in power cry “not it!”
President Harry Truman was known for having a sign on his desk in the White House that read “The Buck Stops Here!” It seems that the executive branch in West Virginia has taken this message too literally, as the majority of the $150 million available to them for flood recovery remains unspent while no one takes responsibility for what went wrong. A soap-opera-style drama is unfolding before our eyes as stories about the mismanagement of the RISE program are exposed—fascinating people from across the state and nation.
But victims of the 2016 floods never asked to become part of a soap opera. They just want to go home.