RAINELLE, W.Va. (AP) — On a sunny but chilly November day, roughly 50 people huddled together on Ninth Street in front of a newly constructed home. They formed a circle and bowed their heads in prayer.
Led by Walter Crouch, president and CEO of Appalachia Service Project (ASP), the group prayed for blessings for four families who received the keys to their new homes Monday, and another four who will be receiving their keys before Christmas.
The eight families lost their homes in the devastating June 2016 floodwaters.
Since ground was broken Sept. 15, 2016, on the first home, ASP has dedicated 51 homes in the flood recovery effort. Construction is under way on 13 additional homes in Greenbrier County.
“This is the best time of year to be dedicating homes,” Crouch said. “We do it year-round, but there’s something special about the holidays.”
ASP, a regional housing organization serving central Appalachia, works with roughly 17,000 each year from all across the country. Crouch said this year, volunteers came from 38 different states and will be serving roughly 700 families.
The Christian-based organization welcomes volunteers of all religious backgrounds. Crouch said he sees no difference — “just the body of Christ at work.”
“Holidays and home go together,” Crouch said. “Home is what people make it, but new houses help. These new houses are warm, safe, dry, clean, and, I think, beautiful, even if we have to raise them up on piers because of flood elevations.”
Along with keys to the new homes, five volunteers from ASP’s Rainelle team hailing from Tennessee, Louisiana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Meadow Bridge, West Virginia, distributed homemade quilts from a Florida Baptist organization, along with Thanksgiving food baskets from Rainelle Mayor Andy Pendleton.
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Darlenia Killen was nearly brought to tears at the dedication ceremony. She stood in front of her newly constructed home as she recalled the devastating night of the flood.
Killen, who came to West Virginia from Baltimore in 2002, said she was in Lewisburg when she heard about the rising waters.
She and her fiancé, Michael, decided to return home. But soon, the waters were too high to leave.
“We were inside all night. It was terrible. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever had to go through. We thought we might die.”
Killen’s mobile home, already on 8-foot risers, shifted from its foundation as water climbed 2 feet inside.
“I have Chihuahuas. My main concern was keeping them safe.”
Michael stayed awake through the night to make sure a lantern stayed lighted, so rescue crews would know they were stranded.
Two men in kayaks arrived in the early morning hours, but they didn’t have enough room for Killen’s dogs. She asked them to return with a bigger boat.
They came back at 5 a.m. and took them all to safety.
“I can’t even look at the river around here,” she said. “It just brings back too much, ya know?”
She stayed with her cousin in a one-bedroom apartment for three months until the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) brought her a trailer. But now, she has somewhere to call home.
“It’s gorgeous. I’m so excited. I couldn’t be more pleased or more appreciative.”
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Another flood victim, 36-year-old Stephanie McCoy, has called Rainelle home her entire life.
“I lost just about everything,” McCoy said. “I was a renter, so this will be my first home as a homeowner.”
She lost all her appliances, furniture and photos. Her landlord was able to save a few precious items while McCoy stayed safe in Lewisburg.
She said she looks forward to building a family together, along with her fiancé, at the newly constructed home.
“I have moved four times already since the flood,” McCoy said. “I’m just grateful to be back in Rainelle, and to be able to stay here and build a family here now.”
She smiled and added, “I can’t wait to get in and start decorating.”
After much loss in her life, another flood victim, Grace Reynolds, said she feels like her luck is turning around.
Reynolds, accompanied at the dedication ceremony by her daughter-in-law Elizabeth Reynolds, said she got out of her home just in time.
“I drove through the water to pick up a prescription. I didn’t realize it was so bad.”
Water had risen near her home, but never gotten inside. But this time, her double-wide trailer was ripped off its foundation and eventually split in two.
Water reached the light switches, ruining the furniture and a new heating and cooling unit.
“It looked like a war zone,” Reynolds said of her home and the surrounding areas. “But God brought me through it.”
Before the flood, she said she experienced a series of losses, including the death of her husband, her father and her mother. But now, she said her blessings are abundant.
“It’s overwhelming. It’s surreal. It’s almost like a dream.”
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Crouch said ASP is different from other disaster recovery because it is rooted in Appalachia.
“We’re a regional housing organization that happens to do disaster recovery,” he said. “We’re going to be here until the work is done. We’ll be here until there’s no longer a need from flood recovery or funding runs out. So far, there’s still plenty of need and still plenty of funding, so we’re going to be here.”