WHITESVILLE, W.Va. (BP)–Sept. 11’s national tragedy from terrorist attacks now makes residents of southern West Virginia see the region’s flood devastation of July 8 as much less traumatic.
“We may have lost our house and all the stuff inside it, but we still have our family, and a much closer relationship too,” said Clifford Skeens, whose home near Whitesville, W.Va., was one of more than 5,000 devastated by what the American Red Cross has called the worst flooding in West Virginia’s history.
“Our problems are so pale now in comparison to the devastation in New York City,” Skeens said.
Still, cold weather is on its way to this Appalachian mountain area of West Virginia. Many homeless residents have doubled up with relatives or neighbors or moved into temporary government housing, while others are still in tents. The Skeenses made a temporary home out of their small wooden toolshed, sleeping on cots and eating outside under a green plastic tarp. A bright blue, government-furnished Port-o-let is a few yards away.
The temporary nature of their existence is about to come to an end for the Skeenses, since crews of Southern Baptists discovered their little hollow between the mountains and went to work building the Skeenses a new house.
“I don’t know what we would have done without Southern Baptists,” Skeens said.
Skeens and his wife of 42 years, Evelyn, stand beside the pale yellow 8-by-10-foot toolshed they’ve called home since July 8, when a seemingly explosive wall of water, thick with mud and rocks, roared down the mountainside and slammed into their house. Like many others, they had been getting ready to go to Sunday school that morning as massive rainfall seemingly dumped at least eight inches of water in just a few hours. Skeens had gone out to turn on the sump pump when he heard, then saw, the floodwater rushing into their usually tranquil Appalachian hollow. He and his wife grabbed their medicine bottles then scrambled up the opposite hillside, just in time to watch the flood destroy nearly everything they owned.
Now the Skeenses look across their rugged, winding one-lane street and smile in continued amazement at the home built for them by volunteers from Southern Baptist churches and organizations in Tennessee and West Virginia, groups that laid a new foundation for this family in more ways than one.
“Y’all have showed us what Christians are supposed to be,” Skeens said, still in awe of the effort Southern Baptists put in to do the foundation and rough-in work — at no cost — on his new home.
“I have seen so much love out of y’all. When it [the July 8 flood] first happened, we saw so much grief all around us.” But after Southern Baptists set up a disaster relief site down the road at the fire station, “Y’all come in and we saw enough love that overcome it all. I mean it just overwhelmed all the grief. I mean it just left.”
The Skeenses are one of many families in the eight-county area affected by the July 8 flood who are without flood insurance. “It’s just never flooded here,” Skeens said. “I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve never seen it flood.” Without insurance, all was a loss, including the new carpet he had just put in his house and still owes on. Errors in paperwork at the local Federal Emergency Management Agency office resulted in his initially receiving only a meager fraction of what his neighbors were receiving — and they hadn’t lost their homes. He didn’t qualify for other forms of government relief.
Then he met Pat Garland, a Southern Baptist Mission Service Corps volunteer who heads up disaster relief work in the Whitesville, W.Va., area. Garland works with Leon White, statewide director of the West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists’ disaster relief work, who has been keeping steady updates on the state’s progress and needs posted on the North American Mission Board’s disaster relief website. One of those updates was passed along from friend to friend via the Internet back in August, bringing the tremendous need to the attention of Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee staff members in Nashville, Tenn.
Before long, a crew of men usually seen in suits and ties was on its way to West Virginia. Three men with West Virginia ties — Will Hall, vice president for news services; Jack Wilkerson, vice president for business and finance; and Phil Baker, superintendent for the SBC building in Nashville — were given three days’ leave by Executive Committee President Morris H. Chapman to get a house started not only for the Skeenses, but also for Clifford’s brother, William, and his family. Also joining in the effort were Wilkerson’s wife, Brenda, and son, Josh, and Hall’s father, Wilburn Hall, a West Virginia Church of Christ pastor.
Besides the Nashville group, a steady stream of Southern Baptist volunteers have come to help out in the Whitesville area, as well as six other areas in southern West Virginia heavily damaged by the flooding.
“There has been a tremendous response,” White said, listing the following state Baptist conventions as having sent volunteers: Kentucky, Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee and Maryland.
“We still have a great need for more volunteers, as well as financial assistance to provide this ministry,” White said, since “there is an urgency to get people inside before winter.”
As the pounding of hammers, buzz of tablesaws and the scent of freshly cut lumber drifts through the air around southern West Virginia, “Manpower is needed in the West Virginia cities of Pageton, Pineville and Whitesville, as well as Bishop, Va.,” according to a recent NAMB’s disaster relief posting. Volunteer groups are asked to “assist with flooring, sheet rock and/or general construction.”
In between the coordination of building homes, Garland said he also is gathering a cluster of people for a new church, since “there’s no SBC church for 51 miles.”
“The big picture here is that in the midst of a dark day of water, it’s going to be a bright day if people get saved out of this and if a church grows out of this,” Garland said. “That’s what disaster relief ministry is all about — telling people about the greatness of God, for even in the dark time, God can raise you up.”
Skeens and his wife see that too. “This isn’t about building my house,” he said. “This is about the love and care Southern Baptists have shown us. When you show your love like these people are doing, it changes things. People see Jesus.”
Skeens has a new foundation for his family’s house, as well as a new foundation for his life, for he says he’s now “a different man than I used to be.”
For Phil Baker, the Executive Committee staffer from Nashville who headed up the crew to start construction on the Skeenses’ new house, there was no question about it; it was something that had to be done.
“When God opens a door, you just have to step through it and follow the Lord’s leading,” Baker said with reverence. “And yes,” he added, “actions do speak louder than words.”
As Garland starts to think about his next construction project, he added, “The mud and sand will go away, the many scars will always be there, but God’s glory can be seen. We are helping to meet the physical needs in the spirit of Christ, doing the ministry that we as Southern Baptists know needs to be done. I tell you, that’s what Southern Baptist disaster relief ministry is all about.”
To Skeens, it’s all very simple: “There just comes a time when you are supposed to do what you’ve preached, and these people have done it.”
To join the disaster relief effort in southern West Virginia, contact Leon White at (304) 757-0944, ext. 105. “Please call before you come,” White said. “Do not just show up because we need to plan for and coordinate your activity.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: NO LONGER IN TOOLSHED, STARTING OVER, SBC STAFFERS ON-SITE, A PLACE TO STAND, TEMPORARY SHELTER and TEAM LEADER.