A Hard Rain
“I couldn't pinpoint the moment," says Becky," but I knew when the flood came up into the hall and started up the steps that we were in trouble. And we were in big trouble.”
It wasn't the first flood in the town of Rainelle, but it was by far the worst, reaching deadly proportions at breakneck speed. What looked like a regular rainstorm quickly turned into a torrential downpour that would not let up.
At first Becky wasn't too worried. “We lived beside the creek, so we knew [it] rose a lot,” she explains. “I thought it will just come in, and it'll quit. But it kept raining and raining and raining and raining." The water came fast and hard, and in a matter of hours it was rushing through the house and up the stairs, driving Becky and her husband to the second floor where they remained trapped as they waited out the flood.
“It was so bad that we had no place to go to the bathroom... It was one of the most humiliating experiences that I've ever been through, as well as terrifying... we lost everything.”
Becky Gilkeson is just one of the many residents whose life was upended by the massive and unexpected flood of 2016.
Rainelle, West Virginia is a town of 1,500. It’s located at the westernmost tip of Greenbrier County, the southeastern end of the state. For decades it was the site of Meadow River Lumber Company, the largest hardwood sawmill in the world.
The town also sits at the base of a geological bowl, surrounded on all sides by the lush West Virginian forest. It’s split in half by the Meadow River—a pleasant-sounding waterway that nonetheless represents a scar on the town. When this thousand-year flood rose the Meadow River and spilled the banks, it put Rainelle on the map as a town that very nearly lost everything.
Above: Main street in Rainelle, West Virginia / Left: A sign at Elliott Park shows the 2016 flood line. Waters rushed to this level, destroying homes and wreaking havoc through the town. / Right: The Meadow River appears calm, but has several times over been the source of destruction in this small mountain town. / Credit: Hailey Sadler
Some residents received checks from FEMA, a maximum of $33,000, much of which must be put toward housing, whether rent, temporary shelter or repairs.
Every resident felt the tragedy. Everyone lost something or someone. In total, 16 people in Greenbrier County died, and 90% of the homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed.1
"I felt like we were part of Noah's Ark," says Becky. "And were we going to be two of the people that were going to be saved or were we going to be two of the people that died? Because the people that lived across the street from us—the man passed away in the flood, and the woman passed away just a few days after him because she couldn't live without him. They'd been married well over 50 years, probably closer to 60. And their home didn't get destroyed, but they couldn't live there anymore. They just couldn't. So it's just been... It's been terrifying.”
This singular event altered the trajectory of an entire town, and in the days that followed, many would wonder: Will Rainelle ever recover or will it be another casualty, a relic of days past?
A House Becomes a Home
Chris Schroeder was just two months into his job leading home repair projects for an organization called Appalachian Service Project (ASP) in Greenbrier County when the flood hit. Historic levels of destruction carpeted the state of West Virginia, but the town of Rainelle suffered most keenly.
Chris Schroeder reflects on his time with ASP in this small but resilient town. / Credit: Hailey Sadler
Chris recalls the way the events of June 23, 2016, and the days that followed rocked the community and shifted ASP's focus in the region.
"Rainelle is a small town, closely quartered, with homes and buildings lined up next to one another. Something like a flood of that magnitude affects everybody. One side of a street might be completely decimated, and the other side, barely touched, but even those who came out okay had family, neighbors or friends who lost everything."
ASP volunteers were stranded alongside long-time residents, and the response was unanimous: how can we help?
"People immediately came together," says Chris. “When there are people living in tents and living on the streets and have everything they own and the interior of their house on the streets... you have no choice but to overcome. There’s no choice but to figure it out.”
A remnant of the flood wreckage from someone who couldn't afford to rebuild – a very normal sight across town and a visible reminder of the the flood, even two years past. / Credit: Hailey Sadler
ASP joined in the relief effort, partnering with other local organizations. Together, they worked to assess the damage and determine how to best help people and prepare them for the road ahead, while also mitigating the risk of future flooding.
"Resources came pouring in – lumber, supplies, water bottles, labor, anything and everything – people from the region and all over the country came together," says Chris. Relief work is usually temporary, meaning people and organizations begin to leave once the flooding subsides, but not so for ASP. Long after other organizations picked up and moved on to other emergency situations, ASP remains with a commitment to stay until the town is fully recovered.
But what does recovery mean? Is it homes rebuilt? Businesses restored? A revitalized economy? Or something deeper still?
In the days following the flood, volunteers began taking in applications, meeting with residents, assessing needs, and then broke ground on its first new house build on September 15, 2016. Exactly one month later, this first house was completed and handed over to Becky and Russ Gilkeson.
Becky Gilkeson holds her newborn grandson in the kitchen of her ASP-built home. / Credit: Hailey Sadler
Becky recalls the rollercoaster of emotions, flanked by extreme highs and lows and muddled with everything in between. “To get the emotion of first being so miserable from losing everything... to finding out that we were going to get a brand new home... we were just overcome with emotion."
She remembers feeling such gratitude and sadness all at the same time, admitting they never could have afforded to replace their home without the work of ASP, but also grieving all that was lost. "As my husband said, '30 years of life turned into garbage,'” recounts Ms. Becky about surveying the damage. "We watched them haul it off." As you walk through town, some properties are still dotted with piles of waterlogged furniture, toys, and tools sitting alongside heaps of ruined lumber and paint cans.
But like the town, Becky would carry on. As did the work of ASP. "They got on the ball, and it was no time before we had a new home." She recalls the moment she was handed the keys to their new home. "Don't give them to me," she said. "I'm too shaky to unlock the door."
"I love it every time I come in the front or the back door, either way," says Becky. "It doesn't make any difference. It's home. It's not a house, it's a home." / Credit: Hailey Sadler
Tragically, Russ Gilkeson (known in the community as 'Coach G') passed away just one month after the flood. "You know, after getting this brand new house he never got to sleep in it one night, and I still miss him."
Becky's loss is not replaced by a new house, but her new home allows her to move forward. "I know he's here," she says. "I know he loves this house, and the people in the community have been so good to me."
"And the ASP guys still come and talk to me. And Chris, if he's in town he always stops by to say, 'How are you doing, Ms. Becky?' And I'm like, 'I'm great, Chris. This is awesome. I love this place.'"
Family photos are aligned on the hutch of Becky's house, including a photo of her late husband Coach G. / Credit: Hailey Sadler
"I get so emotional talking about it," she admits. "ASP, there’s nobody better than the Appalachian Service Project people. They're so kind and loving and giving, so giving. [Even] for months and months after."
Chris feels the emotion as well. "It was a very bittersweet time for Rainelle as a whole – in the wake of tragedy, but also with the hope of recovery... [Coach G] was an inspiration to the community."
And today, that inspiration lives on through Becky, who continues to give back and support the recovery effort. "I get little ASP cards," she says, "and I always try to send what I can to help somebody else who needed a home like we did.
Boots on the Ground
Reverend Glenn “Tex” Evans founded Appalachia Service Project (ASP) in 1969 with the simple stated goal of making homes “warmer, safer and drier” for families in need. Throughout the Appalachia region – Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky – ASP helps residents meet their most basic need for safe housing.
Over the past 50 years, nearly 400,000 volunteers from across the nation have come together to repair nearly 18,000 homes.
In the beginning, this meant primarily home repairs, but as needs evolved, so has the organization. And so, what started as a group of 50 people fixing up homes in rural Kentucky has since expanded to include home repair, home rebuilding and disaster relief across Appalachia.
ASP approaches each need with one main question: “how can we add the most value?” While the houses often follow a similar style, there is no template for the approach to each home, rather each situation is individually assessed to determine how ASP can best help and support the needs of the community and its residents.
Appalachian Service Project relies heavily on volunteers – 15,000 serving in 30 counties during the summer months, typically completing around 500 home repairs.
It's a process that works because ASP believes in relationship building. "Despite what it looks like on a construction site, or any given day," says Chris, "we're not in the business of construction; we're not in the business of home repair; we're in the business of people, and specifically, helping people."
"Most of these people are living in substandard conditions, some of them in terrible conditions, some of them homeless," continues Chris.
Poverty has many faces, and the people of rural Appalachia are no strangers to economic hardship. In fact, according to 2012 data from the Housing Assistance Council, 17.2 percent of rural residents live below the poverty line (several points above the 14.9 percent nationwide average).2 And affordable housing is a particular challenge in many rural regions. Housing prices may seem lower and more affordable to the outside eye, but this fails to account for the lower standard of living and lack of economic opportunity.
Without money for home repairs and a scarcity of rental options, many people are faced with the option of substandard housing conditions and leaving Appalachian life behind.
According to Chris, this makes the work ASP is doing all that much more essential. "Regardless of what it takes, regardless of what that means, regardless of the early mornings, the late nights, the weekends, [it] doesn't matter." The need outweighs the sacrifice.
"Serving these families, it looks like we're giving them more," says Katy Arce, "but we are definitely getting more from them."
Katy Arce, Case Management Fellow, ASP / Credit: Hailey Sadler
Now a Case Management Fellow for ASP's Greenbrier office, Katy started in her early days as a volunteer. What kept her coming back each summer? The people.
She quickly learned that human connection is often as valuable as building houses. "People... just want somebody to hear them, and to acknowledge that they matter and what they're going through is important and deserves some recognition."
These little human touches make all the difference, and they make the ASP experience transformational for volunteers and homeowners alike. "We get the opportunity to show people that it doesn't matter who you are or where you come from," says Katie, "everybody needs a little help."
Inside ASP Greenbrier headquarters: Left: Photographs of home recipients hang on the wall and serve as a reminder of why ASP exists. / Right: Handwritten notes of gratitude decorate the plywood tables. / Credit: Hailey Sadler
ASP refers to itself as a relational mission with construction on the side. The goal is to serve alongside the families it works with, recognizing the needs, but also understanding the rich culture and community that already exists. Volunteers and residents build relationships and learn from one another. In doing so, the organization achieves a secondary objective: crossing divides and breaking down barriers. The experience replaces stereotypes with real human interaction. Once their boots hit the ground, volunteers often learn to see differently.
"I never thought I would say that one of my favorite memories of my summers in college was hearing about the impact a new roof had," says former volunteer and staffer Shanah Slade, "but after getting to know the people of the home that roof helped, it truly was ... I will never be the same after hearing a single mom tell me that for the first time since she can remember, she is excited for it to rain."
ASP's work often ventures into nearby counties as well. Greenbrier's neighboring Clay County suffers from a 27.3% poverty rate (compared with the 12.3% national average),3 and residents can attest to challenges of affordable housing, the prevalence of stereotypes and the need for bridge-building efforts.4
ASP is one of the few organizations that has stepped into the center of this divide. Appalachia is notoriously a hard nut to crack because of the independent spirit that runs strong through the mountainous region. Further complicating matters is the sprawling nature of the landscape. In more densely populated urban areas, organizations can serve a greater number of people with consolidated resources. In rural regions, the distance and space between homes and people can require more time, money and staff support.
But these barriers have not hindered ASP's willingness to cross the divide. The challenges only serve to underscore the value and importance of this deeper relationship-building effort. Volunteer Lily Milioni describes it this way:
"To truly understand the situation a family is experiencing, to make friends, to empathize and encourage, that is just as important as understanding how to fix their physical homes."
This Side of the Tracks
History runs deep in Greenbrier County. As does family lineage. And land means more than a temporary living space.
"This land from here, clear up to that other house, has been in my family for over 100 years."
Longtime resident Don Cruise recalls when FEMA came in and told him he would have to vacate his home. "I can't move out of here, man," he responded. "I can't. Bring me one of those campers in." But that wasn't an option.
Don responds good-naturedly to a teasing remark from Katie. He shares a warm friendship with the ASP crew, evidenced by his openness in sharing his story. / Credit: Hailey Sadler
Don considered leaving Appalachia. "I don't know," he told his wife Cher, "maybe we better get out of here and go back to California or to Florida." But this small mountain town was home to many generations, and Cher was no more anxious to abandon their roots than he was. "Earthquakes, hurricanes, it's going to be the same thing," she replied. "We've just got to toughen up, get to where we'll be able to stay."
"Well, it's hard to put in words when you're in a disaster because your mindset is, 'Ain't nobody gonna help me. I'm gonna do it on my own,'" explains Don. "I know that. [So] we went to work."
But then Don met Chris, and he no longer had to do it own his own. "I'm gonna go ask him what's going on," decided Don, and with that began the process of constructing a new home for Don and his family.
Don could hardly believe it. "Thanks to Chris, he got on this and you won't believe it. Last year Christmas day, we was handed the key... I've been around construction all my life, to put that up in the air in two days, you're amazing."
After the flood, ASP Greenbrier constructed 61 homes (and repaired 15) in 68 weeks. It has plans to build 50 more.
Each time Don remembers seeing Chris, it was with a hammer in hand. "They did all their stuff, the vinyl siding, the roof, all that, come up, sung some songs." says Don. "You don't want to hear me sing man. I'm not even allowed sing happy birthday when Momma Crus was alive. But, things kept getting better and better and better and better. Now, y'all got a flawless home for me. It's totally amazing... You guys are something. You're well trained, you're good with people. The Appalachian Service Project is something."
ASP values are posted on the wall of its Greenbrier office. / Credit: Hailey Sadler
But in the town of Rainelle, like many others, the joy of a new home is not complete. It is tainted by the knowledge that so much suffering still remains, and this tight-knit community has forged a bond where each resident's future is inextricably intertwined with that of its neighbors.
"Sometimes it's so sad you feel like crying," explains Don. "I don't cry that often, unless it's something because I didn't see no hope. My momma, we were raised in that house that nobody's in... Being on this side of the railroad tracks, it's hard to get anything done. It really is... When you got through here and drive up town, tents all up, people living in tents, and it broke your heart. It broke your heart."
An abandoned home with post-flood spray paint from the National Guard still on the door. / Credit: Hailey Sadler
Katy has witnessed this deep sense of community in her work. "When you call a homeowner and let them know that they're going to be receiving repairs, or that they're going to be receiving a new home, you get different reactions," she says. "A very common one is, 'Okay, so how much is that going to cost me?' Or, 'Is this real?' Sometimes I feel like they think we're prank calling them, and I'm like, 'It's real, it's really going to happen.' But a lot of the times they're just in disbelief. And people will say, 'Well, I really, really appreciate it, and this means so much to me. I know that there's other people out there who need it more.'
Even in the face of great personal loss, residents are concerned about their neighbors. "Everybody has their own thing going on," continues Katy, "but they're also worried about that other person down the road that has something else going on. Or that family that they know who could also use help."
Don shows off the family photos that decorate his house, one of the few items he was able to save in the flood that now make his new place home. / Credit: Hailey Sadler
Katy describes Don as eternally grateful, no matter the circumstances. “I met him midway through the summer... we were finishing up some paperwork with his house… Whenever I called him, he was always so happy. I was like, ‘This man.’ I could feel his smile through the phone. And he was just always in a great mood, and no matter, he would be like, ‘Yeah, I'm in a hospital, but I'll be [fine].’ Nothing ever shook him or made him ungrateful."
"Hey, it's Don. I just wanted to let you know I love my house."
"But he came into the office one day," continues Katy, "and we sat down to do some paperwork. And he looked at me and said, 'I want you to understand something.' I said, 'Okay, I can understand something.' And he said, 'I want you to understand that having a house, on my land, with my family there, is better to me than winning any lottery.'"
This moment stands out as a defining and clarifying one for Katy: “[He] could have anything in the world, and all he wanted was a good home for his family... He'll call the office sometimes just to leave message and say, ‘Hey, it's Don. I just wanted to let you know I love my house.’ His house has been done for a while now, but it's messages like that and people like that, that motivate us to do what we do."
"Everybody deserves a safe, warm, dry house to live in," says Katy. "Sub-standard housing shouldn't be an option. Good housing should be the only option."
We Can Rebuild
Rob and Greg watched as propane tanks floated by, poised to burst at any moment. Through the night, they paddled up to houses and banged on doors, searching for survivors.
Together, they towed residents to safety—one of them driving the boat, the other guiding the kayak behind. It was the summer of 2016, and Rob Bowen and Greg Gil found themselves in the middle of an unprecedented downpour, a rainstorm turned torrential flood.
They tied a boat behind their kayak and started going house to house.
"They rode across our chain link fence," explains Rob's wife, Terri, "so that tells you how high the water was. We have a commercial fence that goes around the property, and they're rowing across it. They got one boat untied, and at that point, they realized, 'There's lives at risk here. We gotta go help some people,' so they tied that boat behind their kayak, and they took off and started going from house to house."
Terri Bowen's eyes get teary as she recounts the day of the flood. / Credit: Hailey Sadler
That long night awaiting Rob's safe return was followed by utter devastation in the morning when Terri realized their livelihood—a hardware store called Red Star Home Supply—had been destroyed.
Red Star Home Supply's future was jeapardized by the flood, but today it is as thriving as ever. / Credit: Hailey Sadler
Terri's father owned and ran the store before she and her husband, and the store is home. "We came into town, and of course we come in, and we're crying. We had no insurance. We put our lives' savings, everything we had in feed and insulation and lumber, and it had all washed downriver. Everything we'd ever worked for was gone."
"Don't worry. Yellow shirts are on the way," said her pastor. But Terri had no idea what that meant and was admittedly a skeptic. "Folks in West Virginia are so self-sufficient, mostly self-sufficient. We've never really received this kind of love and support before, so we're like, 'Yeah, Zeb, okay. Somebody's coming. Whatever.'"
But along came ASP, with a commitment to restore the town. That meant building new homes for Rainelle residents as well as investing in the local economy by purchasing supplies from local businesses, in this case, Red Star Home Supply.
For each new home build, ASP Greenbrier sources materials from this local hardware store.
"We've supplied 68 houses," says Terri. "ASP saved our business and our town."
The patronage of local business means more than economic growth for the town—it means dignity. "This was Rainelle's issue, this should be Rainelle's survival fix," explains Terri. "This should be our glory day where we can rebuild our town and be proud of what we've been able to supply out of here. We don't need to be supplied by anybody else. We can take care of ourselves here, and ASP gave us that."
Terri embraces Katie as she talks about what the partnership with ASP has meant for them, and for the town. / Credit: Hailey Sadler
According to Terri, this is something the town never expected. People might think, "'nobody's gonna care about me; nobody's gonna care about my stupid window; nobody cares if my porch is falling down.' When somebody shows up and says, 'I'm here ... we wanna help you,' that's a beautiful thing. I mean, that has blown our minds that they have that giving spirit in their heart ... it's been life-changing."
1 Johnson, Shauna. "'We Still Have a Long Way to Go' Rainelle Mayor Says Two Years After 2016 Flood." MetroNews. June 2018.
2 White, Gillian. "Rural America's Housing Crisis." The Atlantic Monthly. August 7, 2016.
3 Patrick, Emily. "Appalachia at Risk: Housing Crisis Threatens Mountain Life." The Citizen Times. May 8, 2017.
4 "Quick Facts." U.S. Census Bureau. Accessed January 2016.
My grandmother’s handmade quilt. Little fingerprints on the wall. A well-worn copy of my late father’s favorite book. A box of notes from important people in my life. Old photo albums. These are the small details that I associate with home. More than a physical space, home is sense of place, both tangible and intangible all at the same time. It can mean safety, security, belonging, history, warmth, family, memories, love and so much more.
When I first learned about ASP, I was encouraged by their efforts to fix up people’s houses, but after hearing their stories, I realize it is so much more. This story took our team into the homes of people who lost everything but carried on, into a community that was destroyed and then rebuilt. They traveled mountain roads in a heavy snowstorm to capture this story of perseverance, friendship and a community bond that is thicker than water.
Thank you, thank you, Steve Jeter, Hailey Sadler and Robert Winship for crafting a compelling story that reminds us all of the sacredness of home and power of human connection.
And to ASP, thank you for investing in communities, restoring homes, building relationships and transforming perspectives.
Editor, Bittersweet Monthly