BEST OF 2023: Residents of Campbells Creek look back on ‘tears, sweat, and sleepless nights’ one year after devastating flood

By Joe Severino, RealWV

(originally published August 18)

EDITOR’S NOTE: I have often referred to Joe Severino as the “future of storytelling in West Virginia,” and this article is an excellent example of why. Originally published in March, Joe took a hard look at the Campbell’s Creek community one year after a devastating flood had left it in ruins. What he found were neighbors committed to help one-another rebuild their lives.

This is a West Virginia story through and through, and most Mountaineers can relate to what happened in Campbell’s Creek. I’m glad it was Joe ho told it. – Matthew Young

One year ago, the residents of Campbells Creek spent this week digging their belongings out of the thick mud, sweating through 90-degree heat, just trying to get a grip on what happened. Overnight downpours caught the community by surprise, with early-morning rescue missions beginning around 3 a.m. Campbells Creek flooded at historic levels, damaging more than 100 homes in the area.

KD Jones was one of the many Creekers who sprung into action the day of the flood. Jones, a chef, collected funds to feed relief workers and those going through intense hardship. Rebecca Urie, a lifelong Creeker, was also seen plenty during the cleanup efforts. This led to Urie, Jones and other community members coming together and creating the long-term relief network Campbells Creek Cares.

Sitting on freshly-sawed park tables underneath a newly-built shelter at Ken Ellis Memorial Park on Wednesday, Jones and Urie reflected on the 366 days that’s passed since the flood. “It’s been a year of hard labor,” said Urie. “A lot of tears, sweat and sleepless nights just trying to figure out how in the world we’re going to make things happen for people.”

During this time last year, Creekers sifted through decades of ruined memorabilia and equipment in the Little League’s storage and concession stand, and waded through swallowing mud to clear the dugouts. They sent truckloads of debris down the road. Nearby at the park, picnic tables and other fixtures completely washed away. The health department was out giving tetanus shots.

But on Wednesday, children laughed as they ran through the playground. A father and son played catch out on the field. Residents nearby mowed their grass and walked their dogs. A fall chill lingered in the summer air, and the water in Campbells Creek sat low and still. “Community effort to the highest degree,” Jones said of the collective work it took to initially rebuild. “And it’s been that way in the year since.”

Campbells Creek Cares was formed to address emergency and ongoing needs in the community after the flood, Urie said. They organized efforts to fill massive potholes in the roads, clear trees, and fix fences. They helped finance furnace replacements for more than three dozen families. There are now only two families left in the area without working heat since the flood, Urie said, with help hopefully soon to get to them.

Much of their early work centered on rebuilding infrastructure, Jones said, but Cares transitioned into a holistic community resource group as the year went by. They are now helping run farmer’s markets, connecting people with their lawmakers, navigating rollbacks of governmental assistance and fighting proposed utility rate hikes.

Urie spoke at a recent Public Service Commission meeting to fight a $641.7 million rate increase, saying that Campbells Creek residents could not afford another rate hike. The average monthly bill for Appalachian Power customers has risen from $55.28 in 2006 to $138.57 in 2021 — an increase of 150% over 15 years, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

And the service has gotten worse in that time, Jones said. Where he lives, normal winds knock out the power.

There is still trauma around the flood itself, but most have moved on. Jones said. He was fortunate that the creek waters did not damage his home a year ago. Many were not. However, it’s hard to look around Campbells Creek and not see immense progress.

“From where I’m sitting and looking at things, the flood has reinvigorated the sense of community around here,” Jones said. “I think there’s a really noticeable trail of events going from that flood, to our park having farmers markets, yard sales, monthly celebrations, people renting this place out, three brand new shelters; and the ball fields are doing wonderful.”

Creekers have always been tight-knit, but their strength has been tested in recent decades. Health and economic outlooks have plummeted in the area, like many former West Virginia coal mining communities. Their spirit may have been lost for a while, but it seems to now found its way back.

“It’s magical to the point to see how much people care about each other,” said Jones. How things used to be, where struggling neighbors could turn to each other for help and not feel shame – that mentality has started to return following the flood, Jones said.

“It’s what we needed to get back to the basics,” he said.

Jones, and friend Nalani Wean carry heads of greens headed for the farmer’s market. Submitted Photo.

Cares’ work will continue, with high hopes for their future, Urie said. They want to have a physical location for better organizing. There’s a push for harm reduction work. There’s a dream to have a community garden and weekly farmers markets at the park.

With the help of some grant funding, Cares has offered $5 vouchers to families at these farmer’s markets. Increased food costs have hit Creekers hard, Urie said, as many can’t afford to pay the more than $2 it now takes to buy a grocery store tomato. The farmer’s market vouchers and the local low costs have helped feed families throughout the summer, she said.

“You’re getting fresh, monstrous, out-of-the-ground tomatoes, like two for a dollar,” Urie said. The final farmer’s market of the year will be at Ken Ellis Park on Sept. 9, Jones said. It will be 60s themed to honor the park’s founding decade.

As Urie said, it’s been a long, laborious year. The work will not stop or slow, however, as need in the community is still quite visible.

“Every time you walk into the local gas station or Dollar General, and you see somebody that’s literally counting their change to make sure they can get a loaf of bread, or something they need to get their kids back into school; that’s what keeps you going,” Urie said.

The end goal of Cares is to help transform Campbells Creek into a self-sustaining community, creating a culture of health and togetherness that can withstand disaster, Jones said.

When the floods first hit Campbells Creek, Jones said an Eastern Kentucky community group – then dealing with the fallout from flooding that killed more than 40 people – sent him $150 for his meal drive. Now, Cares reaches out to communities when they’re in crisis.

“That’s just what we do,” said Urie. “Once you’ve been through it, you start finding people who are going through it as well – you know what the suffering and the pain is like, to be abandoned by everyone.”

The last year has brought many issues facing Campbells Creek and residents to the forefront. Progress has been made, but the work has been a reminder that Creekers still have a long way to go.

“We’re just trying to put Band-Aids on every wound that we can until we get more [resources] in,” Urie said, “to try to solve each problem that we’re handed.”

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