Front Porch Blog

Making sense of crisis: The West Virginia floods

Editor’s note: In this guest post, West Virginia resident and former coordinator of The Alliance for Appalachia Katey Lauer shares her perspective on the aftermath of the floods that devastated several West Virginia counties late last month, and the humanity she has witnessed as communities come together and begin to rebuild. To learn where you can volunteer or donate money and supplies, visit the West Virginia Citizen Action Group’s WV Flood Resources page.

Photos courtesy of Nate May.

Photos courtesy of Nate May.

“… My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
So much has been destroyed.
I have to cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”

— Adrienne Rich

This might be an article where I tell you how devastating the flood has been. Where I tell you that the flood waters are not water at all. That they are sewage and mud and oil. That they are bits of plastic and metal. I might tell you that it’s four days into flood relief and I can’t get the smell out of my nose or off my skin.

And I might explain how I can’t shake the worst of the stories: how I sat with a grandmother who told me how she climbed to the top of a kitchen stool late Thursday night while the debris rose higher and higher around her ankles then knees then waist.

How I heard about a woman alone in her home in a wheelchair, waters rising up to her neck while her dogs piled onto her lap — all of them screaming. How her family heard her from outside but couldn’t get in.

I might tell you about the kind young man in the town where 17 people died. How he pointed out the mountain where he fled with his mother just after showing me the water line on the carport outside, well above our heads.

But the floods aren’t just about that.

Because this might also be an article about strength through hardship. About that phrase I see on fast food boards and church bulletins: “West Virginia Strong.” And I could tell you how my guess is that that sign is about the families on 5th Street in Rainelle, about the cheerleaders serving up soup beans and cornbread in the Kroger parking lot to anyone who’s hungry, about the volunteers sorting a pile of clothing 20 feet high in an Elkview gym, about the women running the volunteer check point in Clendenin. I could tell you about everyday heroes, but the floods aren’t just about that either.

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Because this article could be about issues: About our failing infrastructure. About climate change. About poverty. About how working-class, rural America is so unseen by the rest of our nation. I could say that.

But then there’s also the way that strangers come together in these moments of crisis. How I hauled heavy, putrid carpet with a dear old friend and a man I’d never met. How I piled water-logged drywall on a pile of building refuse with a man from Florida. How a woman stopped us on the street to give us a warm meal — a woman whose name I didn’t know and who I’d never see again.

Then I could tell you about the ugly parts, about people fighting in sadness in the streets. About that wits-end sort of withdrawal on the face of an older woman. I could say how I wonder where these tons of waste will be shipped and guess that it’s other poor communities that will deal with this new burden. I could tell you about the national guardsman, eyeing me for too long in a shirt tight with the damp.

But the thing that feels closest to the truth is that there is not one story here. In times of crisis, we can look for saviors and goodwill, we look for peeks at what’s best in the human spirit. We can look for a way to make sense of it — to give it a purpose. We can look for the revelation. If you have been touched by this crisis, my guess is you might well have found some of that. But you have likely also found more. I know I have. If these floods have taught me anything, it’s that crisis is not tidy. It is more threads than fabric.

What I mean is that crisis does not make us super-human; it makes us more human. The floods that have washed away homes and possessions and loved ones have also washed away pretense. And at the end of the day, here we are, neighbors and strangers, ankle deep in receding waters, doing our best — in our beauty and our faults — to reconstitute the world.

Visit the West Virginia Citizen Action Group’s Flood Resources page to donate and find other ways to support relief efforts.

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