From the Worldwide Faith News archives

No joy in Mudville: West Virginians still cleaning up, fixing up after another flood

Date 27 Jun 2002 15:08:36 -0400

Note #7330 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:


No joy in Mudville

West Virginians still cleaning up, fixing up after another flood

by Alexa Smith

KEYSTONE, WV - Vondalier Scott is tired of wiping up mud.

She has done too much of it this year since Keystone - a once-thriving little mining town deep in the West Virginia hills - got hit with back-to-back 100-year floods in just 10 months. The floods nearly washed out what's let of the little town's economy.

"It's going to close us up," says Scott, 51, the town clerk and also the clerk of session of six-member Whittico Presbyterian Church, the only African-American church left in the Presbytery of West Virginia.

Scott is replacing the furnace and water heater - again - and siphoned filthy water out of her basement and ground floor for what she hopes is the last time. Her house on Keystone's main drag is separated from the creek by a highway, a railroad track, a smaller road and a line of old row houses with low-slung front porches.

But there's no getting away from run-off that slides down the mountains that frame Keystone on all sides.

Scott helped clean up the church last July and set about getting repairs accomplished so that life could get back to normal. But not this time.

Flooding in 2001 did $10,000 worth of damage. On May 2, when mud came rolling down the mountainsides again, $10,000 worth of repairs were destroyed. The mud plugged the creek and swallowed up downtown Keystone.

"It was a mess here, and it is still a mess here," says the presbytery's weary flood-relief coordinator, Bonnie Mallott, who oversees labor crews in nearly 50 summer camps for relief workers. The camps were set up so the workers could clean up last year's flooding. "People are facing all of this with differing degrees of grace. ... It is very, very disheartening for a lot of people.

"Even the men from the Bluefield and Princeton Presbyterian churches (in neighboring towns), who have been working on the Whittico church for the last nine months, those guys were just crushed. The new cabinets. The air conditioner. The furnace. Everything is under water again."

Mallott said the presbytery needs volunteer construction workers and supervisors.

The latest rains came just when the church was ready to open its refurbished basement as a community center for the town's young people.

Now there's no choice but to fill in the basement with dirt, rock and cement, and look for a building elsewhere. The church's furnace and bathroom have been moved to the second floor, where giant fans whirr constantly to stave off mildew and scatter the stench from downstairs.

"Our kids have got nothing to do," Scott says. "If they have money, they can drive to Bluefield. But that's a good 50-minute drive ... to see a movie or go skating or bowling. ... And there are no jobs here."

Jobs have been scarce for years, ever since the deep mines started closing and remaining operations were mechanized.

MacDowell County coal towns like Keystone got walloped in the 2001 floods and were declared federal disaster areas. This year's floods killed nine people in the southern part of the state and left hundreds homeless. Mine waste sliding down the mountainsides destroyed roads leading to obscure, now-underwater communities like nearby Welch.

One of the water-logged basements mucked out by presbytery volunteers was that of the Hickman home in tiny Coalwood, where author and scientist Homer Hickam and his fellow "Rocket Boys" built their homemade rockets, later immortalized in the film, "October Sky."

There is hardly any deep mining left in southern West Virginia. Many natives believe that mountaintop-removal coal mining and virtually unregulated logging contributed to the flooding problems. Coal companies blow the tops off mountains to expose coal seams - and dump the rubble in the valleys below.

The waste dirt and rock buries streams, destroying aquatic ecosystems and forcing the water to cut new channels for run-off, according to environmentalists who oppose the practice and to West Virginians who've watched the landscape change.

According to Eddie Schear of the Clean Water Network in Washington, DC, West Virginia isn't getting more rain. It's just that the ground - bereft of topsoil and vegetation - is unable to absorb it.

The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) says more than 1,000 miles of streams in West Virginia have been destroyed by dumped mining rubble. OVEC says a number of houses were punctured by logs washed down the mountainsides in the latest round of floods.

While the Bush administration legalized valley-filling on May 3, a U.S. district court judge ruled six days later that the Clean Water Act generally prohibits coal operators from burying streams with waste - the cheapest method of waste disposal for coal operators.

Several class action suits are under way now against the mining companies.

According to Mallott, federal and state agencies are arguing about whose responsibility it is to dredge streams that are filled with flood debris.
For the presbytery, all of this means it must re-evaluate its relief programs, according to Gay Mothershed, the executive of West Virginia Presbytery.

Two other Presbyterian churches were damaged in this round of flooding, both in Welch - Anderson Memorial and First Presbyterian. Both had flooded basements.

"The truth is," Mallott says, "this is going to keep happening. The question is where, rather than if. These people had two 100-year-floods in one year. Not since 1985 has there been flooding like this. But every time there is a heavy rain in this area, all the creeks fill to the top."

In the meantime, Scott and her neighbors are still slopping around in mud.

"This is the only black Presbyterian church in West Virginia that's still open," Scott says of the building a short walk from her front door. "The only black Presbyterian church still left in West Virginia. My mama raised seven kids in it."

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) has committed $130,000 to recovery work in West Virginia, according to Stan Hankins, coordinator for U.S. disaster response. The money has gone to Presbyterian congregations and flood survivors. Hankins said PDA is exploring how it might expand the effort.	
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