Monday, October 17, 2016

Aftermath of June Floods in West Virginia

And the Floods Came…
by Robin Blakeman

Rev. Robin Blakeman, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition Organizer, WV Presbytery Stewardship of Creation Ministry Team leader & WV Interfaith Power and Light Steering Committee member.

In late June of this past year, clouds settled over the mountains of West Virginia (WV), and rain began.  At first, this seemed like a normal summer storm system, but quickly reports of flooded communities were heard across the state news channels. Some communities got over 10 inches of rain in less than a day!

Photo courtesy of Vivian Stockman, OVEC (Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition)

Anyone who knows anything about WV topography knows that many of our communities are located in narrow river or creek valleys – in between the lush and beautiful mountains that interconnect across the Appalachian mountain chain. We are located in what is referred to as a “temperate rainforest region” – the second most diverse such region on the planet. Our intact mountains, forests and streams can actually serve as a sponge during normal summer storms, absorbing and filtering a lot of water.

This, however, was no “normal” rain event. This was especially true in the community of White Sulphur Springs, WV – where normally small and tranquil trout streams quickly swelled and converged into a torrent that looked more like the muddy Mississippi River! Unfortunately, many homes were in the flooded valleys and many people lost everything, including 23 people state-wide who lost their lives. There were multiple other communities in which homes, businesses and schools were heavily affected; the infrastructure in many communities was decimated. White Sulphur Springs, for example, lost its water main, and the town water tank was subsequently drained; there was no public water service available to the town for at least the first month following the catastrophic flood. 

Photo courtesy of the author

West Virginia is still in recovery mode; there will be rebuilding going on for years, and some communities will not recover well. Our state leaders are extending state of emergency declarations and appealing to the Obama administration for more federal aid, even as I write this article. This is ironic, considering the budget cuts and delays in establishing a budget that have happened in recent years in our state government. There are many people who want to call this past summer’s floods “1000 year floods," but that number is misleading.

If you knew that a flood event like this was ONLY going to happen once per 1000 years, a community could plan to cope, rebuild, plan for the next one WAY down the road. But, the fact is that climate science has been predicting an increased frequency of these type of catastrophic rain events for decades, and it is now happening. Some experts refer to these localized heavy rain events as “water bombs”! Floods from unprecedentedly high rainfall amounts are happening on a more frequent basis.  The link between Climate Change, economic cuts to infrastructure, decreased environmental regulations and disaster preparedness funding, and our recent floods is not a mysterious coincidence.

So, what role can churches and faith communities play in the midst of these literal and political storms? Some insights on this came from the Rev. Jeff Allen – a United Methodist, and Director of the West Virginia Council of Churches. Although he cautions against self-deploying during times of natural disasters, he says: “Local churches… in a very real sense… are our first responders…” (Hear more from Rev. Allen here.)

Photo courtesy of Vivian Stockman, OVEC (Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition)

In my opinion, it would be wonderful if our churches and faith communities could become advocates for Disaster Preparedness and Disaster Prevention, not to mention sustainable Climate Action. Many faith leaders sadly see this type of discussion and activity as “too political.”

Yet, it is almost a certainty that churches and faith communities will be increasingly called upon to help deal with these kind of tragic events – either in “first responder,” clean-up, rebuilding, or gap-filling (i.e. food pantry, utility bill assistance, etc.) roles. So, is it “too political” to speak out about the need to meaningfully address Climate Change at the state and national levels, in order to alleviate the suffering of those around us who are increasingly caught up in “natural” disasters? This is a question to which I believe we should use the formula “What would Jesus Do?” to inform our answer.

For more information on the 2016 West Virginia flooding, follow these links:
If you would like to support the work that Robin and others are doing to raise awareness about Climate Change and the need to prepare for more frequent disasters like this summer's floods, please contribute to OVEC at; including a note that your support is due to this article would be helpful.

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