RAINELLE, W.Va. — Two months after a freak storm flooded homes and killed 23 people in West Virginia, residents in impoverished Rainelle curl up in tents and campers at night while their homes are gutted during the day.
Spray-painted X's on the front doors of damaged homes are a constant reminder of the frantic searches for survivors after nearly a foot of rain fell in less than 12 hours, stranding people in cars, homes and businesses. Five people in Rainelle died.
The town of 1,500 people, nestled in a low-lying valley in Greenbrier County, was battered as badly as any during the June 23 floods. Labeled a 1,000-year flood by the National Weather Service, the storm destroyed more than 2,100 homes statewide and damaged another 2,000, the American Red Cross estimated. So far, the federal government has spent more than $111 million helping the state dig out.
Mayor Andrea "Andy" Pendleton believes Rainelle is facing "Noah's Ark" moment — a chance to rebuild and rebrand a town once known for the world's largest hardwood sawmill. Pendleton said she wants to see better homes for everyone.
"A better place to live," Pendleton said. "And some reason for somebody to come to town. We haven't got that niche yet. We used to. Don't have it any more."
It's hit or miss for businesses along the main drag in Rainelle — some have reopened, like Ace Hardware, others are rebuilding and some still sit in eerie darkness. The state has granted about $750,000 to help nearly 90 small businesses, including $168,000 for an eye care clinic, an insurance company and more than a dozen other businesses in Rainelle.
Pendleton, who goes by "Mayor Andy," walks from house to house peppering residents with questions to keep them on track: Have they filed with FEMA? Have they applied for a new home? Do they understand rules about asbestos removal and raising their homes higher in the flood plain?
Walter Crouch, CEO of the Appalachia Service Project, said his nonprofit group plans to build at least 50 homes and repair 60 others in town. The first two new homes should be finished by mid-October. Time is of the essence, he said, to ensure a swarm of residents don't skip town before they can get a home.
FEMA has almost wrapped up work on Linda Bennett's temporary one-bedroom place, which sits next to her old home.
During the floods, another resident paddled a canoe to her house, smashed out a window and saved her and her disabled husband. The water had risen to her chin, she said.
Since then, her daughter has helped set up the inside of her new FEMA trailer.
"We don't need a lot," Bennett said. "Just so we're together down here, with the dog."
So far, almost 8,800 people statewide have applied for FEMA individual aid. Across Greenbrier, Kanawha, Clay and Nicholas counties, FEMA has provided temporary trailer homes for 16 households, $33.1 million in housing aid for 577 families and $6.3 million for other individual needs.
From the town's founding in 1906 until 1975, Rainelle was home to the Meadow River Lumber Company, which once had the world's largest hardwood sawmill. Like much of the struggling coal-dependent state, Rainelle hasn't diversified from its focus on natural resources. The median income is about $25,700, with almost one in three people below the poverty level.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is asking flooded towns such as Rainelle to see opportunity in rebuilding. He assembled higher education, public health and economic development officials to help flood-torn areas rethink their economies.
But, at times, it's hard to focus on the future while people piece their lives back together.
A couple blocks away from Bennett's house, a cramped camper has been home for Imojean Gilbert and her husband Jackie, who has cancer. They spent weeks bouncing from shelter to shelter — eight in all — and they have been living in the camper for more than a month.
The shell of their home remains, but it will likely be torn down. The couple is awaiting construction of a FEMA trailer, and living in the camper has taken its toll.
"My husband, he's getting sick and tired of it," she said. "It works on our nerves."