My boyfriend’s family is from West Virginia. Every year they have a reunion and it’s a “come as you are” sort of event where if you walk away hungry, it ain’t no one’s fault but yours! I love the slang there because it reminds me so much of my younger days, running barefoot through wet grass and laughing my head off. There are no formal “which fork do I use?” moments. I’m grateful for that. Sunday dinners at my Grandmother’s house were filled with table etiquette, complete with a “proper use of a finger bowl” demonstration. I didn’t care about finger bowls, or napkin placement. I just wanted to eat! That’s why I love West Virginia so much. It’s just a comfortable, kick off your shoes and listen to the rain on the tin roof kind of place.
I wanted to leave on the Wednesday after the flood because an animal shelter in Charleston was in need of food for displaced animals. I did volunteer animal rescue work for about a year, and I can tell you from experience there is always a shortage of food and supplies. Because of the amount of items we planned to bring, it was impossible for me to leave early. We needed two vehicles to haul everything. I knew that I needed a haircut so I chose to tackle that instead. It was last minute. P.R. at Partners Salon and Spa had a location near me so I booked there instead of my usual location. Little did I know at the time it would prove to be a fateful choice.
My new stylist Jackie was bubbly, and precise. I was so incredibly impressed by the haircut and her wealth of knowledge that I actually did something that I never do; I bought the products she used. I thought nothing of it until the morning of the trip. Brian, my dog Rex and I set off with our walkie talkies in my car. Those were my future brother in laws idea. Drew is quite honestly one of those people that you meet and you think to yourself “I’m the dumbest person on this planet”. He doesn’t make you feel that way at all, but when you hear him speak the things that he says are quite astounding. He’s also one of the most honest people that I know. Don’t ever ask him if your ass looks fat in a certain pair of pants. If you are looking for some reassurance, he will in fact give you the run down. I suggest asking that question at least thirty minutes before the departure time. I love him for that though.
Drew is the voice of logic, reason and hope when all seems lost. When Brian was in the hospital last year, I was truly in despair and at my wits end. I said to him “Drew, if they put me away will you come visit me?” He looked at me completely stone faced and he said “That depends. Do I get to leave?” He’s just amazing that way.
Drew rode in the other car with my future mother in law. As we set off, the conversation between Brian and I turned to the animals in that shelter. For some reason it made me think of those hair products. Heaven knows why. I google searched the product line, and discovered much to my dismay that Wella is a subsidiary of Proctor and Gamble. I think I uttered every expletive known to man after I read that on PETA’s “tests on animals” list. Brian, true to form just looked at me and said “calm down babe”. That scene from “Horrible Boss’s” popped into my head “You don’t hit the driver!” Safety first!
It took an extra hour and a half to drive there due to road closures. Brian’s GPS lady is just as sadistic as mine. “Get in the left lane and make a right”. I lost it! Rex perked up from the back seat and stuck his face next to my elbow. I just looked at him and said “she’s insane!” He thumped his tail against the back seat in agreement.
As we drove through Cowen West Virginia, the thing that absolutely astonished me the most was the amount of debris lined up along the side of the road. Couches, trash, wood, bags, and lamps were thrown into huge piles. I’d seen the news footage but to see it in person was another level entirely. I was speechless. My heart just broke as we drove along the windy roads. People were everywhere, carrying items. I knew immediately what I wanted to do with those salon products. I had to donate them. I just had to. If there was ever a situation where doing the wrong thing could be made into doing something right, it was this one.
When we finally got to Brian’s Dad’s house we unloaded everything, and my mind was racing. Where were the FEMA trucks? Where were the volunteers? Where were the tents, and the water supplies? I was dumbfounded, and to be perfectly honest, a little irritated as well. I knew that the National Guard was there because they had used Brian’s family air strip to land the supply planes.
The rather ironic thing about that air strip is that it was just a simple field where potatoes grew. During the war, Brian’s grandfather landed in that field accompanied by an African American co-pilot. They had engine trouble. It was the field or nothing. The family went to great lengths to get that Pilot out of the area. His safety was the number one priority. Having a black pilot in the foothills of WV was exceedingly dangerous for everyone concerned. Outsiders were not welcomed, and to have a person of color there meant only one thing; guns or worse. They somehow managed to get him to safety without incident though.
I thought about that story as we made the short journey to the Smith family reunion the next day. The Smith’s are Brian’s Grandmother’s relatives. They are truly wonderful and amazing. To sit in a lawn chair and hear people swappin stories makes you smile. I quickly learned a couple of years ago that one way to break the ice with strangers is to talk about his or her dog. There wasn’t a shortage of them there. Some people may find that difficult, but I’m the kind of gal that just goes barreling though. This trip was no exception. I can’t help it!
People began telling me about the flood, and the absolute disorganization that followed. It was genuine and heartfelt, and at one point it made me tear up. One family member told me that when he called FEMA, he was told that he would have to go there in person and fill out a form. He would’ve happily complied, had his car not been in a tree 100 meters downstream. Another person told me that when she finally got through to speak with someone, she asked them how long it would be before some of the less familiar roads would be given aid. The answer she received stunned me “I don’t know. You’re just going to have to keep calling I guess”. I left the reunion with a pretty heavy heart.
The next morning, I went rushing through the doors of the Church directly across from the house. I stood in the corner, and just listened. There seated on the stage floor was a woman who looked positively defeated. She said to the woman leaning over her, “All I did was come and open the Church doors this morning, and now everyone thinks I’m in charge!” A man standing there said to her “I’ve got a truck, so I can help haul. Where does all this stuff need to go?” It was at that moment that I walked up the aisle to her, and introduced myself. I said “I used to work for the Government, so trust me, I absolutely can understand and appreciate your frustration right now”. She smiled faintly, then stood up, sighed and started directing the volunteers.
I turned to the two women to my right, and asked if they were from FEMA. The young woman smiled at me, said no, and introduced herself to me. Her name was Stephany Westfall, and her companion was Roxanne White. They were both volunteers with the Webster County Long Term Recovery Team. The problem as Stephany explained was that the backroads are known only to the locals, and weren’t being as closely inspected as the more popular areas. With that, a loud woman’s voice piped up from the back of the Church. “That ain’t the only problem! These folks are just plain stubborn!” We all laughed at that remark. I found out later that her uncle and his family refused to leave their house and waited the storm out in the attic, completely surrounded by water. She kept saying “the dang fool” over and over as she recounted the story to me. She was wonderful. I thanked them all for taking the time to speak with me, and left with Brian to go to the Cowen Volunteer Fire Department.
We arrived there, and it was full of activity. I stood outside the doors and listened to the stories going on around me. In my hand was the fabric salon bag and those infamous products. I began to feel smaller and smaller. I almost turned away, but then I heard a voice next to me with that familiar drawl “Honey, did you need something?” I turned, and there beaming at me was a beautiful gal wearing a EMT Shirt. I knew that I turned bright red, but I somehow managed to find the words. Frankly, that was a miracle because I was hugely embarrassed. I explained that I had shampoo ,etc to donate. She just smiled as big as she could and said “This we need. People keep bringing water!” We both laughed at that one. Her name was Beth Bragg, and she introduced me to Lance Bragg, also an EMT. They both told me that the Lowe’s in Summerville had donated a lot of totes, but they were in need of volunteers to haul debris. They needed carpenters, contractors, electricians, and general construction people because the task was so overwhelming. Beth went on to tell me that everyone was extremely grateful for Brad Paisley and his “Go Fund me” page. At the mention of his name, everyone in that Fire Department chimed in with praise and gratitude. I left there amazed because amidst the chaos, somehow all of those EMT’s and volunteers found a way to smile. I thought about that as we made the long drive back to Virginia.
This past weekend we returned once again. We chose a route through White Sulfer Springs, and what I saw there amazed me. All along the road were signs that read “White Sulfer Strong” , “West Virginians Helping West Virginians”, and “Neighbors Helping Neighbors”. They were everywhere! It was really amazing. When we finally got to the house later on that night, I stepped outside on the porch. I heard laughter, and the familiar sounds of fireworks. As I stood there listening, I looked up into the sky. Directly above my head was a cloud in an absolute perfect shape of a Dove. Its wings outstretched across the sky, and its nose pointed towards the earth. Directly below that was another cloud in the perfect shape of a bull’s head. The head of the bull touched the beak of the Dove. It was so moving and poignant. For me, it was just confirmation of what I already knew; West Virginia may be down, but they are certainly not out.
We set off looking for our favorite swimmin’ spot, and found instead an officer guarding part of the road. We got out to speak with him, and found out that the road was closed for the remainder of the 15 mile stretch. Don’t ask me how I managed to get this footage because I honestly couldn’t tell you. It’s probably for the same reason that complete strangers in grocery store lines tell me his or her life story! Apologize for the poor quality.
Footage of the Air Strip.