15 months after a flash flood devastated parts of Southwest Virginia, state aid is on the way

15 months after a flash flood devastated parts of Southwest Virginia, state aid is on the way

More than a year after a devastating flash flood hit Buchanan and Tazewell counties, residents whose property was damaged or destroyed can finally start the process of applying for state flood relief money.

Delegate Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County, who was instrumental in securing the $18 million, said Friday he hopes those who qualify will receive the money before the end of the year.

To help affected residents get the application process started, information sessions will be held Wednesday in Bandy and Whitewood.

“Many of the flood victims lost everything they own with no ability to rebuild. The assistance will give them hope for a better future,” said Morefield.

Morefield said a crowd is expected at the meeting in Whitewood, where there was a lot of property lost and damaged.

Buddy Fuller, a retired resident of Whitewood who has rental properties in three counties, said he plans to be at the meeting Wednesday. He hopes to recoup some of the money he’s spent cleaning up a trailer park he owns off Dismal River Road and wants to rebuild, an apartment building in Whitewood, a number of damaged rental properties and a barn, and replace some sheep that got washed away.

Flood relief information sessions

Meetings about how to apply for state aid will be held Wednesday for residents of Buchanan and Tazewell counties whose homes were damaged or destroyed in the July 2022 flash flood.

Tazewell County: 4:30 p.m., Bandy Community Center, 3290 Bandy Road

Buchanan County: 7 p.m., Whitewood Community Center, 7424 Dismal River Road

He said those in the community don’t seem to be angry over the budget impasse that held up the relief funding because they knew it would eventually come through.

“We’ve just been waiting,” Fuller said Friday. “I know with our legislators, Morefield and Hackworth [Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County], if there’s any way to get the money, they’re going to get it for us.”

As with the relief fund for those hit by flooding in August 2021 in the town of Hurley in Buchanan County, the money will go through the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, which is hosting the community sessions. The meetings are open to the public and no registration is required, Morefield said.

The meetings will include information about the application process, eligibility requirements and program guidelines to assist residents in applying for the disaster relief program, according to DHCD.

The relief program will offer a grant of 175% of the local assessed value for property that is classified a total loss or had major damage. For properties that can be repaired, eligible applicants can receive assistance to make repairs or be reimbursed for work that has already been done.

The devastating flash flooding hit parts of eastern Buchanan County and western Tazewell County on the night of July 12, when about 6 inches of rain fell over just a few hours. The resulting flooding damaged roads and bridges, destroyed homes and caused power and water outages. There were no reported deaths or injuries.

According to an online dashboard maintained by United Way of Southwest Virginia, a lead agency in the recovery effort, 21 homes were destroyed; as of Aug. 31, six had been built to replace them. Another 25 had major damage of $10,000 or more, and 18 had been repaired. Twenty-five more homes saw damage of $10,000 or less.

So far, United Way has spent $574,441 on the repairs and construction and $225,049 remains, the dashboard states. All of the money came from donations.

Less than a year earlier, a similar storm occurred in the Guesses Fork area of Hurley, a community about 30 miles away. It also resulted in major flooding, the destruction or damage to dozens of homes and the death of one woman.

Following both storms, the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied financial help to individual homeowners, saying that the damage wasn’t significant enough to warrant aid. Most of the homeowners did not carry flood insurance.

FEMA’s response to the Hurley disaster prompted Morefield to propose a statewide flood recovery fund that would pay for property losses that weren’t covered by insurance or federal aid. There was a budget earmark of $11.4 million for Hurley relief.

Initially, Morefield had sought $11 million in relief money for the areas hit by the July 2022 flooding, but he increased the amount to $18 million when local damage estimates increased.

Those in Hurley also had to wait for state relief money due to a budget stalemate, although it had been ironed out by June 2022. The first state funds went to Hurley residents in December 2022 — 16 months after the flooding.

It’s been 15 months since the Whitewood flooding.

Local and state officials have said the Hurley flood left them better prepared for the Whitewood disaster, and they decided that the framework developed for the Hurley relief money will be used for Whitewood.

As with the Hurley flooding, those who want to be reimbursed for work that’s already been done must provide receipts, Morefield said.That requirement slowed down the process in Hurley, as did a shortage of contractors to do the work.

Applicants in Buchanan County can apply at the Buchanan County Department of Social Services in Grundy, while those in Tazewell County can apply at the Tazewell County Administration Office on Main Street in Tazewell.

“We are excited to start taking applications and get the much-needed assistance to the flood victims,” Morefield said. “The program is unlike any flood relief program in the United States and the governor referred to it as a model program. Our region is grateful the General Assembly and the governor offered their support for our request during a time of crisis. I have been extremely impressed with the Department of Housing and Community Development and all of the local partners for their commitment to help.”

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‘There will be a next time’: Ludlow emergency management director gears up for future calamities

woman outside building

LUDLOW — Sometime in the afternoon of July 9, Angela Kissell and her husband began knocking on doors in this southern Vermont town, telling residents to prepare for a possible evacuation. She’d been following forecasts of a storm that could bring as much as 5 inches of rain to Ludlow in the next two days, and the possibility of flash floods.

woman outside office building
Angela Kissell shown outside the Plymouth town offices on Monday, July 31. She is the emergency management director in Ludlow and the town clerk in Plymouth. Photo by Tiffany Tan/VTDigger

About 12 hours later, at 4:30 a.m. on July 10, Kissell joined other members of the Ludlow Fire Department in evacuating people from a manufactured home park as the Black River engulfed it.

And then, Kissell — who’d been Ludlow’s emergency management director for just two months — asked the municipal government to activate the Ludlow Community Center as an evacuation center.

Within the next 36 hours, dozens of people fled to local emergency shelters as Ludlow was pummeled by the statewide storm, momentarily becoming the storm’s epicenter. Some parts of Ludlow got nearly 8 inches of rain, which caused a massive mudslide downtown, spawned millions of dollars’ worth of damage to homes, businesses, roads, bridges and a state park, and temporarily cut off land access to and from the center of town.

Kissell, 48, said the experience underscored to her the need to come up with a more comprehensive plan for future emergencies in the town of 2,170 residents. “We learned so much,” she said, “that it’s just going to make us that much better for the next ones.”

Though she has been a firefighter in Ludlow since 2017, Kissell only became emergency management director on May 1. During that first day of the flooding, the learning curve was steep.

Stepping up preparations

Before moving to Ludlow with her husband in 2016, Kissell had built a career in mortgage and lending in New Hampshire. She joined the Ludlow Fire Department — where her husband was a firefighter — after seeing the need for more volunteers in a town with an aging population and with majority part-time residents. Only 10% of Ludlow homeowners lived there permanently.

At a Ludlow Selectboard meeting April 3, when Kissell formally expressed interest in becoming the town’s emergency management director, she pointed out that the local emergency operations team had not met in at least four years.

She also said the town had not addressed some emergency issues, such as opening a shelter during a storm last winter, and it needed an emergency director who would step up. She asked if Ludlow was prepared for an emergency.

The town’s longtime emergency management director, Ron Bixby, resigned on May 1. Kissell was appointed to the volunteer position on the same day.

In June, members of the town’s emergency operations team met to discuss their priorities, Kissell said. The following month, the flash floods came.

firefighters outside a couple of houses
Angela Kissell, far right, and her husband, Fran Kissell, second from left, with fellow Ludlow firefighters after responding to a call in February. Photo courtesy of Angela Kissell

Kissell said she didn’t immediately have answers to several pressing questions as the natural disaster unfolded: What kind of support did local emergency responders need? How could they search homes cut off by the flooding? How can town workers immediately assess road conditions?

“We had no policies or procedures in place … I had nothing to go by,” she said. “I felt like I was a little dependent on all these other people who’ve been in their roles much longer than I have.” But it was Kissell who was leading the town’s emergency operations team, which includes the fire and police chiefs, town manager and head dispatcher. 

Kissell said the local emergency management plan consisted mainly of lists, such as emergency contact personnel, shelter locations and town equipment. 

Ludlow’s emergency operations team is currently assessing its next steps. The municipal manager, Brendan McNamara, said members will be holding more debriefings on the flood response and reaction. 

“The plan will be tailored to what becomes of those meetings,” said McNamara, who was appointed to his position in April.

a man in a yellow raincoat walks through a flooded street.
Crews work to repair Pond Street, which is also Route 103, in Ludlow on Monday, July 10, 2023. A torrent of water, foreground, has cut off a northern gateway for the town. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

State Rep. Logan Nicoll, D-Ludlow, said he was satisfied with the town’s emergency response to the flooding. “I thought everything went as well as it could have,” he said. “It was a difficult situation.”

‘Two flood-zone towns’

Kissell balances her emergency management role in Ludlow with her day job as town clerk in neighboring Plymouth, where she also serves as a firefighter. She missed two office days because of her flooding response work.

“When I came back up here, I felt really overwhelmed,” Kissell said outside the Plymouth Town Office this week. “I feel like I’m in two flood-zone towns.”

male and female firefighters
Angela Kissell and her husband, Fran Kissell, are both firefighters with the Ludlow Fire Department. Photo courtesy of Angela Kissell

A portion of Plymouth, which is located about 10 miles north of Ludlow, was battered by 9 inches of rain during the July storm, according to data from the National Weather Service. Several homes were damaged and some culverts were washed out, but Kissell said local roads and bridges took the hardest hit: $3.36 million worth of necessary repairs.

In the flooding aftermath, shel said, Plymouth residents have been calling her office to ask which damaged roads have been reopened and where to get test kits to check their well water. Others, with tax season upon them, inquired about their property tax bills.

But being the emergency management director in Ludlow has helped her gain knowledge that has come in handy at the clerk’s office. For instance, in Ludlow, she developed a list of emergency contacts and resources — with the state government, Red Cross, Federal Emergency Management Agency — that she has shared in Plymouth.

Kissell said she sees a lot of work ahead as Ludlow’s emergency management director, but the July flooding gave her a crash course. She plans to write a step-by-step evacuation plan, gather supplies for emergency shelters in advance and prepare resources to guide residents in the post-calamity recovery.

“We’ll be better next time,” she said, “because there will be a next time.”

Read the story on VTDigger here: ‘There will be a next time’: Ludlow emergency management director gears up for future calamities.

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