Scarlet O’Neill, a part-time resident of the county, found herself in a crowded courtroom meeting of the Greenbrier County Commission Tuesday morning relating her story about the loss of her home in Caldwell. Her main residence is in Philadelphia, but with news of the floods in West Virginia, she and her husband drove from Pennsylvania to see what could be salvaged of their Greenbrier County home.
“It’s the first house next to the Hart’s Run tunnel,” she said, indicating to all in the room that the house was lost to the flooding waters of Howard’s Creek. In her search for help and information, she went around the neighborhood asking questions no one knew the answers to. No one, it seemed, had any idea where to go for help. Although her part-time residency won’t allow her to qualify for FEMA relief, O’Neill asked the commissioners, “What are the Top 10 facts [you could give us] as a ‘Disaster for Dummies’ resource?”
Flood-plain manager for the county, Kelly Banton, offered to go see O’Neill’s flooded residence first-hand to advise and assess. She said she has posted information to a Facebook page created for Greenbrier Valley Flood Recovery and Relief at https://www.facebook.com/GBV2016FloodRelief/. Banton supplied her phone number (304-647-6690, ext. 0) at the county courthouse to anyone in unincorporated or rural areas in need of information or assistance with flooding issues. Assistance is also available through the county’s planning department at 304-647-6687.
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To facilitate repairs to flood-damaged properties, the commission voted to waive the building permit fees. Residents must still apply for the permit, the commissioners stated.
In addition, Bob Ford, building inspector for the county, stated that every property affected by a flood must be inspected. If that requirement is not upheld, the county would lose its FEMA standing and no longer receive the funding FEMA offers to counties and municipalities when disasters occur.
As the building inspector, Ford is also responsible for assigning condemned properties, which is defined as properties that are too unfit or unstable for occupancy. “This does not mean they cannot be repaired,” he said; however, it is up to the owner to repair and pay for the costs of that repair. “They must present a plan for that repair and get a permit from the building department at the courthouse.” Ford also said an electrical inspection will be required for all homes with water damage and all electrical meter boxes must be replaced in those residences.
“All is not lost,” said Commission President Mike McClung, emphasizing for the public that condemning a property does not mean the final chapter for that property, but simply, in its present condition after the flood, the home is currently not fit or safe to live in.
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“I’d always thought the derecho was the worst time of my life!” declared Al Whitaker, executive director of the 911 Center and Home Security Emergency Management. He gave an overview of the state of the flood disaster after nearly three weeks of steady focus. He said the emergency operations line is still open for anyone needing assistance from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. The number is 304-645-5444. The overview includes:
• Shelters – Crediting The Greenbrier resort with helping to shelter a large number of the storm refugees, Whitaker said all of the known homeless persons in the county have found safe and dry locations to stay as of Monday. More storms are anticipated this week, and so he and his crew are on the look out for anyone still sleeping in their cars so they can be sure to offer a dry place for them.
• Debris – the company hired to remove debris is working hard, running 30 trucks a day filled with debris and establishing alternate dump sites for the debris so as to not overwhelm the landfill. There are health issues there, Whitaker said, if too much comes in to the landfill on a daily basis.
• Supplies – The distribution points are closing down and consolidating as displaced families are slowly recovering. Supplies are still coming into the county from all over the country by the truckloads, Whitaker said, and he is having difficulties finding adequate warehousing facilities to store the volume.
• Volunteer Hub Center at Montwell Park – For volunteers who want to contribute to the relief efforts still ongoing, Whitaker directed them to the HighRocks Hub, a centralized site on the ground floor of the Hill & Holler bike cafe at Montwell Park (204 Jefferson Street North in Lewisburg). Two new sites have also opened up as primary sites for volunteers: Rainelle’s old Magic Mart store and the old Family Dollar store next to the Food Lion in White Sulphur Springs.
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FEMA operations coordinator Chris Van Alstyne said 69,016 people state-wide have been displaced by this event. There is a housing task force active within the county seeking every option to provide the homeless with a place to stay. FEMA housing will soon also be available, he said. He said 40 to 60 FEMA representatives are in the county going door to door offering assistance and handing out information pamphlets. Others are aiding the 2,000 county individuals who have signed up for disaster relief support.
The Community Disaster Loan Program has been approved, Van Alstyne said, to any eligible jurisdiction in a designated disaster area suffering a substantial loss of tax and other revenue. It is a baseline loan with no cost sharing obligations. For information on this resource, see http://www.fema.gov/community-disaster-loan-program.
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Disaster recovery is a slow process, said certified mental health advocate, Theresa Flerx. She gave a presentation addressing a five-step action plan for people of all ages and occupations to reduce stress, anxiety and depression, which can often accompany catastrophic events weeks, months, even years afterward, Flerx said. She offered an eight hour program for anyone interested in becoming certified as a mental health advocate to become familiar with symptoms of risk of suicide or harm, and how to encourage others seek mental health support. For more information, go to www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org
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“Tourism is Greenbrier County’s biggest asset,” said Kara Dense, executive director of the Greenbrier County Convention and Visitors Bureau, in a plea for support funding from the county. “Tourism supports the entire economy of the county and we need to be sure tourism returns.” She and Jeff Kmiec, president and managing director at The Greenbrier resort urged “amplifing our efforts after this once in a lifetime event to tell the world our story.”
“We need a plan to get ourselves out of this,” Kmiec said. “We’ll never know how many people won’t be coming back [to West Virginia].” He said he intends to rally the business community to match any funding the GCC can give.
“While many businesses have taken a loss, it’s more about the loss of paychecks for many Greenbrier citizens,” Dense said. Eighty-three percent of the employees of The Greenbrier are county residents – that’s 2,300 people, and they reside all over the county.
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Sam England, chief of West Virginia State Parks, offered an update on the state of the Greenbrier State Forest and the Greenbrier River Trail. The state forest, he said, dodged the bullet and even now is fully operational, and the northern end of the river trail above Anthony Creek is in good shape.
The lower end from Anthony south is another story. “It’s a mess,” England said, with six major culvert washouts and five or six minor ones, plus “the mother of all mudslides” at mile post 13, where a 450 foot mass of rock and debris has buried the trail in hundreds of tons of mud. “We are really up against the wall here,” he said. That single flow will run into $2 million to clean up, he said. Short term clearances may include foot bridges over many of the culverts.
The state is working to follow FEMA procedures in order to qualify for reimbursements, England said.
“The river trail brings in $3.5 million in fresh money every year. It is a well used resource and an important piece of the state park system.”
England referred to Jody Spencer, superintendent of the Greenbrier River Trail, to coordinate volunteers who want to be a part of the clean up efforts.
Other GCC business :
• Laura Legg, director of the Day Report Center, reported the center received a community corrections grant for $208,581 for fiscal year 2016-17 operations. She said the figure represents a $23,000 cut from last year’s budget for the county.
• Tanya Hoover, chief probation officer with the county, reported on accounting errors found in the organization of the local drug testing lab which was established in conjunction with both Wood and Mercer counties several years ago. The commission will have county attorney Patrick Via look into any liability issues before taking any action.