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Summer floods leveled this town but an amazing effort has already rebuilt 17 homes

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The US had more floods in 2016 than any year on record, according to a new report

WATCH  | Life is slowly getting back to normal in Rainelle, West Virginia. There are still piles of debris lining the sidewalks and abandoned homes with "X"s spray-painted on doors, but after five months, some families are finally returning to town.

5 dead in Rainelle

On June 23, widespread flooding across West Virginia destroyed more than 1,200 homes. Twenty-three people died in towns all across the state. The town of Rainelle was hit especially hard.

Nearly all of the homes in Rainelle were damaged by floodwaters.  Of the town’s 650 homes (according to the 2010 census), 150 of them were abandoned following the deluge. Five people in town died.

'We had a plan'

Rob Bowen spent 25 years working in coal mines before opening a hardware store with his wife Teri.

"Rob got notice that he would be laid off" from the mine, says Teri. "And it was pretty devastating -- but we weren't really worried, because we had a plan."

Rob and Teri worked for months and spent their entire life savings to build Red Star Hardware. They opened the doors on April 24, just two months before the flood.

'Like a horror movie'

Rob Bowen remembered the night of the flood.

"We could hear people screaming for help," Bowen says. "Like a horror movie, just an eerie feeling."

Bowen and his friend Greg Gill attached a boat to a two-man kayak and began going from house to house, rescuing people who were up to their necks in the rising water. They pulled 22 people from the flood that night.

We opened those gates and saw a lifetime of work and all of our life savings was just gone.
Teri Bowen, on the flood damage to their store

A former boomtown

Like many cities and towns across Appalachia, Rainelle’s economy has all but collapsed in recent years.

"This used to be a big boom town," says Rainelle Mayor Andy Pendleton. "We had the railroad, the coal mines, the world's largest lumber mill. 

"When the coal mines started going downhill [and] the coal mines were shut down -- the miners were cut off."

Few had flood insurance

Very few Rainelle residents had flood insurance, because an updated flood plain map drawn by FEMA meant 90 percent of Rainelle was not required to have flood insurance. 

That, combined with a rapidly shrinking tax base, meant rebuilding Rainelle would require outside help. More than 700 volunteers from groups across the country came to Rainelle in the weeks following the flood.

It almost looked like a war zone, with the National Guard patrolling and the piles of debris.
Walter Crouch

"I first came to Rainelle three days after the flood," says Walter Crouch, president/CEO of Appalachia Service Project (ASP).

Rebuilding fast

ASP received more than 100 applications from families whose homes were destroyed this summer, and began donating homes valued at $60,000 to flood victims. ASP paid for the construction with FEMA settlements and donations.

"Throughout Rainelle, we have 17 homes either under construction or near completion or completed," Crouch says. "And by the end of the year we'll have 15 homes complete and have anywhere from three to 10 others under construction."

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W. Va.) celebrates the rebuilding.

'Grab the kids and get out'

Brian and Pearl Day lost almost everything they had in the flood. "I'd have to say we lost 95 percent of our things," says Pearl. "Everything that was below a kitchen counter is gone."

Brian, who was out of town for work when the flood hit, texted his wife to just "grab the kids and get out."

Brian and Pearl, along with their three young girls, have been living with Brian's mom since the flood.

I didn't believe it until [Pearl] showed me the deed. And then I was just like wow, we're getting a home.
Brian Day, on getting a new home

The Days moved into their new home November 22. 


"For everybody that's come together to do this for us, there's no way I'll ever be able to say 'thank you,'" Brian said.


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