In rain-soaked W.Va., flood victim planning funerals
Rainelle, W.Va. — Like other business operators along Main Street in the West Virginia town of Rainelle, Pamela Wallace Arnold is slowly cleaning up from state’s worst flooding in decades. As a funeral planner, she’s also helping to bury the dead.
She runs Wallace and Wallace, one of two funeral chapels in this West Virginia town of 1,500 residents. Wallace is doing double duty drying out her rain-soaked business — launched by her great-great-grandfather in 1926 — while planning the funerals of some of the flood victims.
Rainelle is in Greenbrier County, where 15 of the state’s 23 deaths from last week’s devastating floods occurred. Where the visitations will be held, not even Wallace knows. She’s also not sure whether she can ever reopen at the same location.
She just understands that the community needs her.
“Obviously, our very first concern is taking care of the families,” she said Monday. “We have to get somewhere quickly so we can take care of things.”
Wallace is looking for another place where she can relocate temporarily. If not, her business has locations in other towns.
Thousands of homes and businesses across this mountainous state were damaged or destroyed when up to 9 inches of rain fell in a short span, causing perhaps the worst flooding West Virginia has seen in three decades. More than 400 people were living in shelters statewide.
Some of the worst destruction occurred in Rainelle, which is surrounded by hills, the Meadow River and several tributaries. Once home to the largest hardwood lumber mill in the world, the town’s motto displayed on its website reads: “A town built to carry on … building great things since 1906.”
Now rebuilding will have to be done.
Further up Main Street, Smathers Funeral Chapel has not received inquiries about handling flood-related funerals for local residents. But owner Monica Smathers Venable said her phone system has not been working properly since the floods.
Storm damage prohibited Venable from holding a funeral Saturday unrelated to the floods. She hoped to conduct it Tuesday but isn’t sure yet due to uncertainty about ongoing storms and road conditions.
Venable, too, is worried about damage at her site.
“If the building is not structurally sound, that changes everything,” she said. “If it’s just cosmetic, I think we’ll have a go at it.”
At the Park Center shopping plaza, state troopers assisted with traffic flow and helped carry items to a supply drop-off and distribution center while helicopters buzzed overhead.
The Rainelle United Methodist Church, made entirely of American Chestnut lumber, was turned into a donation center. The church basement flooded but the main level, which sits higher off the ground, was spared.
Cindy Chamberlain, who oversees the shopping center distribution center, said she worked with the American Red Cross during the massive response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans more than a decade earlier.
“It parallels Katrina. It is that bad,” she said.
Downpours on Monday brought back fears of the flood to some residents.
“That was the first thing that went through my head,” Valerie Oney said. “I was like, ‘Oh my, is this going to happen again? Are we sacrificing everything for nothing?”
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin defended the state’s preparation and response, but conceded they were caught off guard by an uncertain forecast and by how much rain fell so quickly.
“We didn’t anticipate, I don’t think, being as bad as it was with as heavy amounts as we had,” Tomblin said. “I think that it just came up so fast.”
Rainelle resident George Wagner, who lost all his possessions when his apartment flooded, said he was aware of warnings about potential floods the night before the storms.
“I’m going to be paying more attention to the warnings and watches until I find another place,” he said. “It’s not going to be around water, that’s for sure.”
Some residents have formed armed patrols to protect what was left of their homes and possessions after some reports of looting. Fayette County Sheriff Steve Kessler warned potential looters in a Facebook post that anyone caught would be arrested and jailed.