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Garrett Burgess, a West Virginia University junior from Clendenin, was studying in France in June 2016 when major flooding hit his hometown and the entire region. Hundreds of dollars in cell phone charges later, he found out his father's home was flooded.
The rain stopped after 8- to-10 inches had fallen in 12 hours on the steep West Virginia terrain. Devastation was severe: 24 people were dead, hundreds of homes and businesses were either damaged or had washed away completely, roadways had crumbled, bridges were severed from their piers and slimy mud coated all of the debris scattered along streams, as well as everything the murky water touched. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency that was not lifted for months.
Burgess decided to get involved in the relief effort, and with the guidance of WVU Russian Club advisor Lisa DiBartolomeo , spearheaded drives that garnered $2,000 for the Kenneth and Carolyn Gray Student Emergency Fund, two truckloads of Halloween costumes and another pair of truckloads of winter coats, all bound for his hometown.
The Russian Club was one of many responses from WVU. Within hours of learning about the flooding, the WVU community sprang into action, with the Student Government Association, the Center for Service and Learning and the University administration devising a plan.
Students, staff, faculty and community members worked side-by-side to manage collection sites, organize and load donations and drive vehicles to areas in need. By mid-afternoon June 25, three tractor trailers, three box trucks and four pickup trucks loaded with water, cleaning supplies and other necessities were ready to leave Morgantown, bound for a barely-recognizable southern West Virginia.
The WVU Foundation began collecting money, now totaling $1.049 million. The effort was bolstered by a $500,000 donation from alumnus Ken Kendrick, who challenged other alumni to match his early contribution. Through fundraisers in alumni chapters around the country, by early September that much and more had been added to the fund. More than $812,000 of the fund has been administered by WVU Extension Service , $237,000 has been donated to the Ken and Carolyn Gray Emergency Fund, which was created to assist current WVU students who experience sudden financial hardship.
More than 30 WVU students received $70,616 from the funds for the 2016-17 school year, and funds are still available for the coming year.
Among the first WVU responders, 76 rising freshmen in the Honors College traveled to Clay County for the 2016 Honors Day of Service, spending a total of 264 volunteer hours helping Clay County High School prepare for the upcoming academic year.
The SGA sent a group of volunteers to Rainelle, helping local businesses clean up mud and debris.
Students in the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources made multiple trips to Clendenin, working a total of 523.75 volunteer hours.
Students from the Potomac State College Campus partnered with the Appalachia Service Project to help a Rainelle woman who had lost everything on the first floor of her home.
More than 80 WVU Tech students participated in Golden Bears Give Back, rolling up their sleeves and clearing a loading dock at a closed department store, readying it to transport the supplies housed inside.
WVU Medicine teams provided vaccines, basic medical care and wellness checks in homes. About 40 doctors, nurses and advanced practice providers were in Rainelle, Rupert and Richwood to provide medical care through the first weekend; twice as many volunteered to go. Several WVU hospitals donated masks, gloves, scrubs, other basic medical supplies and portable cribs.
WVU collected nearly 10,000 books for schools, libraries, summer programs and childcare centers through the West Virginia Prevention Research Center and WVU Centers for Excellence in Disabilities collected more than 5,000 books, exceeding their goal of 800 many times over, and the College of Education and Human Services chapter of the National Council of Teachers of English at WVU collected nearly 5,000 books, as well.
The student advisory board of the College of Physical Activity and Sports Science organized a holiday gift drive for Greenbrier County families. The advisory board collaborated with Wellspring of Greenbrier County to identify families, then WVU Extension, Davis College of Agriculture and Landscape Design , alumni and community members to gather at least one gift for every person in 27 families. The WVU Athletic Training club wrapped the gifts, which were delivered to Wellspring by students for distribution.
Response to the tragedy inspired WVU School of Pharmacy student Rebecca Berhanu to write the song “West Virginia Strong,” donating all of the sales proceeds to flood victims.
Because the floods altered the pathways of many streams and redistributed silt, sand and debris that could cause further flooding, the West Virginia Geographic Information Systems Technical Center, housed in WVU’s department of geology and geography in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences began assisting development of updated maps for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help with FEMA’s response to future flooding.
In September, the University partnered with Sen. Joe Manchin to plan a series of career workshops designed for job seekers that culminated in a major career and resource fair held in the Charleston area.
WVU is still on the ground in the flood-torn areas, helping communities rebuild and restore their resources.
The College of Business and Economics continues work with the Greenbrier Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau to analyze the impact of the flooding on the area’s more than 200 tourism-dependent businesses
Earlier this month, the WVU MBA seniors traveled to Greenbrier County to meet with business owners in Lewisburg and White Sulphur Springs to assess their progress and recovery efforts in collaboration with the RISE West Virginia mini-grant program.
And Burgess is still involved in the recovery effort by archiving stories and photographs of the 2016 flooding event that scarred the region.
“It is telling that the rain had not even stopped falling when the West Virginia University community began to react to assist those affected by last year’s flood,” WVU President Gordon Gee said. “Our students were the first to reach out and ask how they could help – and that help continues a year later. Throughout our University family – from students to staff to alumni – we came together to provide support, supplies and hope as our neighbors dealt with the devastating aftermath. And we will continue to serve for as long as our assistance is needed.”
Story by Pamela Pritt
pp/06/12/17Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.