Nothing like volunteering after a disaster to meet people you’d never meet otherwise – people who are lovely and needing to keep their families together and rebuild, but who have a totally different outlook on life from me.
On June 23, torrential rains fell on parts of West Virginia, causing disastrous flooding and at least 23 deaths, destroying 1,500 homes and damaging 4,000 more.
Two months later, I got a chance to visit the state for the first time since the previous disaster – the poisoning of 300,000 residents’ drinking water by Freedom Industries with a coal-washing chemical.
I tried to pitch a story about disaster recovery two months out, but was told it was not “news,” even though I think it is news because all the media and most of the volunteers have left and people are still grappling with the aftermath of a disaster that upended thousands of lives.
Through my friends at RAMPS (Radical Action for Mountains’ and Peoples’ Survival) I got in touch with a woman from the town of Clendenin, a half hour from Charleston, which was flooded when the Elk River (ironically, the source of that drinking water disaster) rose 33 feet above its normal level, rising to near the top of the first floor of homes on the facing street. Pamela Roush matched us with a young man who was repairing his own home and directing work on his pastor’s house down the block. There, RAMPS volunteers David and Ethan sweated for six hours, ripping out the ruined hardwood floors in two rooms so a new floor could be laid. It was hot, dusty work as they pried up boards no more than a few inches wide. They were both wearing dust masks but no eye protection (despite my suggestion), and I noticed when they took a break that David had a bloody gash over one eye where a splinter had flown up and hit his face. He’s a hardcore volunteer and didn’t even bother to stop and clean it or put a Band-Aid on it.
As for me, I was assigned to shovel a thin layer of dried mud out of the basement and then sweep it. Fortunately, the basement door was open to the back yard and there was no mold smell. I noticed a “Friends of Coal” sign on a shelf and a sign for “Elk River Christian School” under the stairs. Later, after the guys finished the floor job, I carried armloads of broken up floor boards out to the street and then pulled up all the remaining nails.
At one point I saw a truck full of guys (either volunteers or hired workers) drive down the street, a big Confederate flag waving from the truck bed.
During a break I had a conversation with Jonathan, whose family, including his wife and three young kids (5, 3, and almost 1) were living on the far side of Charleston while he commuted back and forth to work on the house. The family was out of town when the flood hit (his wife, Melissa, said the best thing about that was now they don’t have to be scared every time it rains, though it also meant they had no chance to save anything from their first floor). After chatting about how high the river rose and the damage it did, I broached the issue of climate change.
He told me the world wasn’t going to end until God said so (I hadn’t suggested climate chaos would end the entire world), and that there’d been plenty of floods in the past before anyone was talking about climate change. (Nobody has made a direct link yet to this particular flood and climate change, though these kinds of disasters are exactly what the models predict as the world warms and the air holds more moisture.)
While we were working, our “matchmaker,” Pam, stopped by. She said right after the flood, hundreds of volunteers poured in from the local area (including the friends I stayed with in South Charleston) and from all over the country. She was set up in the parking lot of an auto dealer, and sent work crews out to homes as needed. That’s when the really hard, dirty work was done, as folks shoveled heavy, stinking mud out of their basements and first floors. By the time I got there, they were in a rebuilding mode.
Pam said after the disaster faded from the headlines (to be replaced when I was there by the much more widespread flooding in southern Louisiana), gradually the number of volunteers dwindled from hundreds to handfuls, but she kept matching people up when she could. Click here to listen/read my Between the Lines interview with her and her sister-in-law, who were a dynamic duo coordinating the work. (Sharry and Pam are pictured above, with the Elk River -- back down to where it belongs -- in the background.)
Another day I was able to take the regional bus from Charleston (for 75 cents) out to Clendenin to do another job – cleaning the windows on a trailer that was going to be a temporary home for a family. There were 50 window panes (most were composite windows) and it took me three hours to wash them inside and out, often standing on the top of a step ladder, leaning out as far as I could without falling over. It was a very satisfying job. That was where I saw my one and only monarch butterfly of the year – flying solo, even more beautiful for being so rare.
I was glad I was able to help a little, and volunteering (as I also did after Katrina in New Orleans/the bayou and in NYC after Sandy) really informs my reporting. But after spending those few hours in Clendenin and knowing how many volunteer hours preceded me, and knowing how many more thousands of hours it will take to get things back to “normal” (and not to mention the mental health toll for years going forward), it just underlined for me how ridiculous it is not to address our climate crisis. I think Jonathan’s God is not happy with us. I hope the ranks of evangelicals who favor addressing it in order to be good stewards of creation will go forth and multiply, and fast.
On another note, I happened to be in Charleston when members of the Kanawha Forest Coalition held a press conference/rally to celebrate their victory in forcing the state's Department of Environmental Protection to permanently close down a mountaintop removal mine site and save three-quarters of the mountain where blasting had been originally allowed. This was a first. Click here to listen to my story on Free Speech Radio News