From the Worldwide Faith News archives

West Virginians having themselves a very muddy Christmas

Date 18 Dec 2001 16:05:21 -0500

Note #6982 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:


West Virginians having themselves a very muddy Christmas

Season's cheer dampened for hundreds of families still rendered homeless

by Alexa Smith

BECKLEY, WV - Julie Blevins' six-year-old son, Brandon, wriggled on the
couch in their cramped, government-issue, two-bedroom trailer, while a cold,
hard rain fell outside.

"Christmas is going to be a lot different this year - my tree, for example,"
she said, glancing toward a small, lighted tree a few feet from the couch.
"I had to take a hose and spray the mud off of it ... but it's come pretty

"What we lost were the ornaments, the stuff he made in pre-school," she
said, nodding toward her son, Brandon.  "We lost a lot of sentimental stuff
attached to Christmas. ... And that about killed me."

But that was only the beginning.

Blevins and her husband, Danny, and their two children, lost their paid-off
mobile home to a series of epic summer rains that swelled rivers in six
counties and swept whole towns away. In all, more than 1,000 families in the
coalfields of southern West Virginia were left homeless.

Now the rivers are back in their banks and the gushing gullies are dry, but
the mid-summer flood isn't over yet for the families whose houses are still

"All of a sudden we've got no home," said Blevins, who said she wasn't sure
whether she'd be able to buy the trailer she lives in now from the
government entity that provided it, the Federal Emergency Management Agency
(FEMA), or whether she would be able to keep the furniture they got from the
American Red Cross.

Danny Blevins was able to salvage a few items from the flood. He rowed a
boat up to their bobbing trailer and rescued the family cat, Tiger, the
television, the VCR, and their infant daughter's playpen and swing. The
next-door trailer, which belonged to his grandmother, was washed into
theirs, knocking it off its foundation.

Julie now has two jobs - cleaning rooms at a motel, and working nights at
the Dairy Queen - to make ends meet. That makes it hard for her to get to
the Kopperston Presbyterian Church for worship.
Danny is looking for a job, but hasn't yet found one. So Blevins is putting
toys on layaway at the Magic Mart. She's quick to say that Christmas this
year is going to be "way smaller" than last. Her son's favorite toys -
remote-control cars and other electronic gear that he treasured - were
washed away.

The rains began on a Sunday morning in July and kept pouring all night.  By
then a lot of little coal towns like Mullens and Keystone and Oceana - where
the Blevinses live - had seven to 10 feet of water raging down their main
streets, picking up speed as it rolled down the sides of heavily mined

So far, state and federal emergency agencies have pitched in $186 million in
relief funds, according to officials of West Virginia's Office of Emergency
Services.  In addition to the 1,000 homes destroyed, more than 1,600
suffered damage of more than $10,000, and 1,100 were less seriously damaged.

With winter coming on, 360 families still live in non-insulated camper-style
trailers, while 303 are in full-size government-issue mobile homes.
Five Presbyterian churches were seriously damaged. At least one, First
Church in Mullens, is still unusable - a heavy cross to bear in the
Christmas season, especially since its pastor, suffering from flood-related
burnout, is on emergency leave.
"Christmas Eve, that was the service of the year," 
Toni Kingdon said sadly, standing in the empty sanctuary in downtown
Mullens. "Other churches would come to it." She and some others of First
church's approximately 80 members were at the church digging whatever was
salvageable from the 10-foot-deep ocean of muck that filled the church
basement and oozed into the worship space.

The communion ware cleaned up nicely. An old nativity set also came clean. 
But generations of handmade ornaments are gone forever, with the pews, the
carpets, the piano, the furnace and most of the tables, chairs, dishes and
church papers.

"We were the only church in town with a midnight Christmas Eve service,"
Kingdon said wistfully noting that it is not to be this year.

Eighty-three-year-old Presbyterian Virginia Cook said she was planning to
visit with her daughter over the holidays. "I'm kind of the positive type,"
she said. "I'm just going to keep going.  In my lifetime, I've never seen
anything like this."

The high-water marks, at eye-level for most adults, are still visible on
some storefront windows on Howard Street, Mullens' main drag. Residents
expect that about 80 percent of the town's businesses will re-open.

Getting back to normal is the common goal. Brad Perry, a resident of a
government-developed mobile-home park outside of Kopperston, said it's a
temporary stop. He has applied for a Small Business Administration loan that
will enable him and his wife and three children to start afresh.
What he wants for Christmas is word that the application has been approved.

"I've been on the phone every day," said Perry, who works in the gas
industry. "It's been kind of hard on me and my wife. The kids lost all their
things, and we lost a lot, too, in the flood. There was nothing anybody
could do, just sit and watch it go."

Perry said he could only watch his earthly possessions float downstream
while floating his mother out of her house on an inner tube.

"I was hoping to be settled someplace by now," he added, "but it looks like
we'll end up staying here for Christmas."

Blevins said staying put suits her just fine, although she's in shock from
the upheaval and misses her familiar cooking utensils.  She doesn't like
having to dress her son in donated clothes that don't fit quite right

She said her spirits have been buoyed by watching the family's tropical
fish, Oscar, who was given up for dead but somehow survived three days in a
mud-filled aquarium.

She said her son has taken to keeping his toys on the highest shelves in his
"At first he didn't want to sleep in his room. He was scared to death," she
said. "I keep reminding him, 'Look Brandon, we're on a mountain, the water
isn't gonna get up here.'"

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has set up an account, number 9-2000003,
"West Virginia Flood," for contributions to aid in West Virginia. Checks may
be mailed to 100 Witherspoon St., Louisville, KY 40202-1396, c/o Central
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