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24 People Killed In W. Va. Flooding; 3 Counties Declared Disaster Areas


In West Virginia, people are cleaning up after historic floods swept through the state. At least 25 people died. And hundreds of people lost their homes. This weekend, President Obama declared three counties federal disaster areas. NPR's Rebecca Hersher spent the weekend in one of the hardest hit towns. In Rainelle, people are wondering whether it makes sense to rebuild in a neighborhood that was almost completely wiped out.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: The neighborhood is right next to the Meadow River. And everyone there is still talking about how fast the water rose on Friday. Daniel McClung and his wife were rescued by boat early on Saturday morning.

DANIEL MCCLUNG: We was actually hanging on the banister over there. I couldn't get on the roof. It was too high.

HERSHER: How long were you waiting?

MCCLUNG: Five hours. Into the night - they got us at 2:30 in the morning.

HERSHER: There was a moment, he said, when he thought they might not make it. According to state police, at least one person did die in that neighborhood that night. Now McClung's front yard is buried under a mountain of soggy, stinking stuff - a brand-new paisley couch, a flat-screen TV, an upholstered photo album covered in mud.

MCCLUNG: Everything that we were actually able to save is in one little room out of a three-bedroom house (laughter).

HERSHER: Can you show me that?

MCCLUNG: Yes (unintelligible).

HERSHER: McClung is a carpenter. So when he looks around his ruined living room, he automatically starts racking up the cost of fixing everything.

MCCLUNG: And it's all so expensive. Insulation will kill you. Then you've got to either put paneling or drywall up. That's not cheap. So there you go. You're up to around $30,000 or more just to repair it.

HERSHER: He's hoping that FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will cover those costs or, better yet, declare the house a loss and pay for a new place on higher ground.

MCCLUNG: Take my stuff and leave - anywhere that the water don't get.

HERSHER: Margaret Tincher lives two blocks over. Or she did.

MARGARET TINCHER: I lost everything.

HERSHER: She's still shocked. She and her neighbors are fumbling through a pile of free clothes at an aid station in a parking lot of a tobacco shop in town.

TINCHER: I don't care how pretty or how ugly.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah. We just need...

TINCHER: I just need clothes...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...Shirts and shorts.

TINCHER: ...On my back.

HERSHER: Tincher says she doesn't want to move. She is going to apply for FEMA aid to rebuild, but probably not for a couple days. She's still trying to figure out how to get food and clothing for her six-person family. She's just one of many people who are feeling overwhelmed by the disaster. On Sunday, with churches in town still flooded, Pastor Aaron Trigga and other church leaders set up an impromptu pulpit in the parking lot of a Kroger grocery store.

AARON TRIGGA: Well, I'm going to try to hold my composure. But I don't know if I can.

HERSHER: He lives in that neighborhood next to the river. His home was destroyed.

TRIGGA: I wanted to get up here and sound all together. But I can't 'cause my heart's broke.

HERSHER: As the pastor spoke, a crowd of more than 50 people gathered around, most of the men in muck boots and muddy jeans.

TRIGGA: You know, ladies - especially us as men, we think we have to be strong. But sometimes, the strongest we can be is to learn to lean on somebody stronger than us.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Lord, prepare me...

HERSHER: After a couple days of sunshine, the National Weather Service is forecasting rain and flash floods for West Virginia today. For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Hersher in Rainelle, W.Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rebecca Hersher
Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.