By LANCE CRANMER firstname.lastname@example.org
RICHWOOD, WV – “Don’t take the high road. That’s where they had a lot of the damage,” Kim Carpenter, the property manager at Edgewood Village, told me over the phone as my rented van rumbled slowly down Route 39. “Take the lower road. That’s Edgewood, where our building is. It’s a little bit clearer.”
It had been nearly a week since 10 inches of rain battered Richwood overnight, causing the Cherry River to overflow its banks and put much of the city under water, but the cleanup was still ongoing.
Earlier in the week, the staff at the National Church Residences home office in Columbus began gathering donated food, water and supplies to send to Richwood to aid the residents of Edgewood Village, a 34-unit low-income senior community that the organization has managed since 1991.
The outpouring of donations was nothing less than amazing.
In two days the central office staff pulled together enough supplies to completely pack a 9-foot UHaul van that I, along with my fiancée Kristen, would drive to the building on July 1.
Six hours after leaving Columbus – one road closure at the heavily-flooded community of Belva, and one delay due to road damage on Route 39 between Summersville and Richwood, later – we were nearing our destination.
Turning down Edgewood Avenue and heading toward the city, the views were contrasting: At first, neighbors working together to clean out a home, hauling waterlogged furniture out into the yard. Then, a house completely off its foundation, washed over the cliff that overlooks the river.
This wasn’t my first visit to Richwood.
My journalism career started in southern West Virginia in 2001 and I’d stumbled upon the Nicholas County city of about 2,000 when I’d been sent to do a story about the Cherry River Festival – a quaint street fair the city held each year.
Though I’d only been there less than a dozen times, I’d always had an affinity for Richwood. Walking down Main Street, you can feel Richwood’s history around you. It is easy to feel the bustle of the mountain boom town it once was in the 1930s.
But the closure of the sawmill, the clothespin factory (once the largest in the world) and the nearby coal mines drove its residents elsewhere looking for work. Richwood lost a quarter of its population in the 1950s, and then another 21 percent in the 1980s.
Richwood had struggled throughout its history, but the people who remained were proud of their city and worked hard to keep it alive.
When I began working for National Church Residences in the winter of 2014, I noticed that Edgewood Village was one of ours. I remembered seeing the building the last time I was in town. I wondered if I’d ever have a reason to pay it another visit. I had hoped I would. I never thought it would be on these terms.
As we pulled up out front of Edgewood Village, it was obvious that our residents were luckier than some others in Richwood. The flood waters had rolled downhill from the higher elevated north end of town toward Edgewood Village, which sits in the valley nearer to the Cherry River, and deposited inches of thick mud all around the building. Luckily, though, the floodwaters never entered Edgewood Village, instead passing just feet around the building and filling the small ravine behind it and completely destroying the Dairy Queen next door.
“We lost power when they had to shut down the sub-station down the road,” Kim Mills, the building’s maintenance technician told me. “But luckily, just last year we purchased a generator for the building.”
Kim let his residents know that Kristen and I had arrived and a small group of them met us at the front door of Edgewood Village to help unload the truck. At the same time, Tim Naylor, a friend and former co-worker of mine from Fayetteville, WV, arrived with his son Colton to volunteer their help.
Within an hour our truck was unloaded and the building’s community room was overflowing with supplies.
A few at a time, residents began to sort through the donated goods, modestly picking out only what they needed – leaving the rest for someone else who they probably felt was worse off than they were.
With a long trip home ahead of us, Kristen and I paused to take a few photos inside the building before walking the few blocks up into the center of town to get a first-hand look at the damage.
The journalist in me wanted to document the devastation to spread the word to a larger audience about what had happened. But I had no desire to be intrusive. I took photos only of the National Guardsmen working to clear the debris and the glaring signs of destruction left behind when the water receeded.
The Oakford, a small tavern on Oakford Avenue, the city’s largest north/south running street, had its door open. As I approached it a man stepped outside to tell me, “We’re closed indefinitely. But I think she’s open a few doors over.”
Just two people sat in Carolyn’s, a pool hall a few buildings north on Oakford Avenue.
“The flood started up on the hill and rolled down. All the houses up there, the water just went right through them,” the woman behind the bar said. “My house got it bad.”
Still, though, on that Friday afternoon, she was at work.
Kristen and I sat for just a brief conversation before we began the nearly 300 mile journey back home.
It took some time over the long weekend to let everything I’d seen soak in. It felt good to help. It felt good to have made the journey and done something – anything – that might have made a difference. It’s still hard to tell myself that anyone could do enough.
It’s hard to know that people are still digging out from the mess, still pulling their destroyed furniture and belongings into the street to be hauled away, still dealing with the feeling of helplessness that was dumped on them along with millions of gallons of water.
Today I received an e-mail from Kim Carpenter updating us all on the situation in Richwood and thanking those of us at the central office for our kindness.
“Richwood still looks like a war zone, with river rock lining the sidewalks and streets,” she said. “Cleanup will take months. The local Rite Aid has passed out flyers saying they will be rebuilding here in town. I have no heard anything about the Dollar General store, or whether the new grocery store will continue to rebuild. Most residents of Richwood did not have flood insurance, and those that did had limited coverage.”
She added that the donated items will greatly help the residents of Edgewood Village who now are without any local stores where they could buy everyday items.
In the last week, Edgewood Village has filled two vacancies with Richwood residents who lost everything in the flood.
One family, the Marlowes, had been in the same house for 60 years.
“The flood completely demolished their home,” Kim said. “They were in water up to their necks and climbed the stairs to their attic. I believe they may have been there for over 24 hours, perhaps even longer, before they were rescued.
“During their initial application process (to live at Edgewood Village), Mrs. Marlow’s only concern was that they lost their beautiful gardens.”
West Virginia still needs help. I encourage you to donate to the National Church Residences foundation, the Red Cross, the United Way or any of the countless charities set up to help.
“Thank you for continuing the Mission, as the City of Richwood desperately needs your hope, compassion and daily prayers,” Kim said. “God bless you all!”