On the October morning Joe Stephens is called to give an update on the work of a West Virginia flood recovery initiative he leads, Stephens is on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., installing a g-scale model train display in the U.S. Botanic Garden.
Stephens, an American Baptist from Parkersburg, W. Va., and a contract worker for a company specializing in creative outdoor living spaces, was far removed from the natural disaster flooding that overwhelmed towns like Clendenin, W. Va., June 23 and 24.
“Nearly four months after the storms a lot of people have simply forgotten about us,” Stephens explains. “We desperately need volunteers on the ground to help with tasks like installing sheetrock and electrical and plumbing work to get people back in their homes for the winter.” His ministry can also use gift cards to secure building supplies.
Stephens explains that at first 100 or more volunteers would come out to help with the cleanup.
“These days we are blessed if we get six,” he says. “People are living in trailers and tents. We encounter neighbors in need and in tears nearly every day.” What survivors discover, Stephens says, is that if they own a flood-ravaged house once worth $150,000 and look for assistance from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) “even if they qualify completely for assistance the most they will receive toward the recovery of their household is $33,000, well short of what is required for them to rebuild.”
It is a typical long-term recovery story where flood survivors find themselves more and more on their own to discover the new normal of their lives unless they get help from volunteers, many of whom come from churches. Stephens directs the Mid-Ohio Valley (MOV) Disaster Relief Organization, a ministry he founded 11 years ago after he himself became a flood survivor. At that time torrential rains forced creeks beyond their banks around his home, destroying the furniture restoration shop he had operated for many years and causing his residence to subside. Volunteers came out of the woodwork, he explains, to help him and his wife, Lisa. They spent 380 hours cleaning up his property, restoring his home and business. Neighboring Williamstown First Baptist Church donated $6,000 in apportioned dollars to help with repairs. One contractor brought in equipment to jack his house back up on its foundation, doing the job at cost.
“I was overwhelmed,” Stephens says. “I couldn’t believe all that people were doing for us. At that time I really didn’t have the money to do anything.” The support led to his decision to pass it on by forming the MOV relief initiative that continues today. The ministry operates out of Sunrise Baptist Church in Parkersburg and has continually sent volunteers to Clendenin – located 96 miles from Parkersburg. (Clendenin, with a population of just over 1,200 according to the latest census, was the site in 1920 for construction of the world’s first petrochemical plant. Clendenin “staples” over the years have included timber, coal, gas, oil and salt.)
On June 23 afflicted West Virginia communities experienced at least 10 inches of rainfall – seven inches within three hours – a fourth of its yearly rainfall total. Forty-four of West Virginia’s 55 counties declared emergencies. Greenbrier County, where most of the 23 fatalities from the storms occurred, was hardest hit. Kanawha County, where Clendenin is located along the Elk River, and Nicholas County, were also devastated. Meteorologists tracking the storms identified the catastrophic weather as a “one in 1,000 years event.” Many households were flooded well onto the second floor including the parsonage for First Baptist Church in Clendenin, the congregation Rev. Joe Seese had just come to serve when the storms struck. “Joe Seese is an amazing man,” Stephens contends. “He could have thrown up his hands and simply left. Instead, he rolls up his sleeves along with everyone else to make a difference. I love my recovery work in Clendenin. I would be working there many more days if I could.” Stephens accompanies crews to the stricken community most Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays.
American Baptist Churches USA sent $10,000 in One Great Hour of Sharing funds to West Virginia and Indiana after the June storms. The West Virginia American Baptist Men’s Disaster Relief Team has been intensely involved in the recovery at multiple levels and Stephens has been working within that network. “In the wider area we’ve probably interacted with 700 households,” he estimates. (Clendenin proper has about 500 households.) In the beginning volunteers were distributing cleaning supplies to a variety of survivors, some of them in “extremely remote” areas, he says. He estimates that active repairs, including insulating, sheetrocking and electrical and plumbing efforts are ongoing for 125 properties.
Stephens says at least 28 congregations across ecumenical lines have been involved in helping residents recover. Some, like Marietta First Baptist Church, a congregation with many older members, have given major financial support. Business Associations have contributed building supplies. Charleston Baptist Temple in the Kanawha Valley has donated money, supplies and contributed many hours of hands-on work. Cleaning supplies and donations came from American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts. Because of recovery gifts made to the West Virginia Baptist Convention, Richwood First Baptist Church (Hopewell) distributed portable air conditioning units to two Richwood area survivor families. Kingwood Baptist Church (Goshen) sent three truckloads of supplies to Greenbrier, Clay and Kanawha counties. Shuck Memorial Baptist Church (Greenbrier-Raleigh) provided volunteer guidance and leadership in the area. Rainelle First Baptist Church (Hopewell) has been vigorously involved in the recovery efforts.
Also involved in the summer recovery was Brothers’ Keeper, a Ripley, W. Va., initiative that received a Matthew 25 Grant this year from American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA). The Grant helped Brothers’ Keeper, a program involving youth volunteers, to engage in badly needed repairs of households occupied by disadvantaged residents and people with disabilities. In the aftermath of the storms the program also dispatched hands-on leadership by sending crew leaders to flood locations. In addition to serving Brothers’ Keeper the crew leaders are active American Baptist Men’s Disaster Relief volunteers, according to Frank Miller, director of operations for Parchment Valley Conference Center, which hosts Brothers’ Keeper each year.
FEMA is overwhelmed with challenges. A visit to its web site provides a glimpse of an impressive list of ongoing FEMA interactions including weather-related disasters in Louisiana, Matthew-related hardship in the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida and wildfires in the nation’s West. ABCUSA has issued an appeal for One Great Hour of Sharing gifts to support Matthew survivors.
Stephens says that because of donor generosity, West Virginians were able to forward a variety of recovery supplies from their warehouses to Baton Rouge to assist Louisiana residents in storm recovery there.
When does Stephens anticipate Clendenin and other storm survivors can resume “new normal” lives? “I wish I knew,” he says. “I really have no idea.” For more information or to contact Stephens, email firstname.lastname@example.org.