Christmas in the Flood Hit Communities

Dec 13, 2016

Christmas this year will mark six months since June’s historic floods that devastated more than 4,000 homes and took 23 lives. For those still recovering, especially those who lost loved ones, the holidays can be more painful than joyful. 

”My husband loved Christmas. I mean, our house used to be decorated so bad that the electric company would send us a Christmas card,” said Deborah Nicely. You might recognize Nicely’s name. Her husband, daughter and grandson all died when the floods washed away their home.

Nearly five months after the floods, Nicely and I are sitting at her new kitchen table in Hope Village – a new subdivision for flood victims outside of White Sulphur Springs. It’s being built by the nonprofit Mennonite Disaster Service.


She stares at a painted wooden sign propped against the fresh wall that says “The Nicely’s.” The sign was the only thing she was able to recover from the house that she’d shared with her husband for 35 years.


A Boxer puppy wiggles for attention at our feet – Nicely says she adopted him because he looks remarkably like the dog her family owned before flood waters devastated her home.


Nicely says she’s not going to decorate her new home for the holidays– no point when it’s just her and the dog. She’ll go to her son’s for Christmas.


“It’s too soon. It’s too soon,” she says.


A memorial where Deborah Nicely's home used to stand a few days after the floods.
Credit Kara Lofton / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Most of the time, Nicely says, she’s just working to find a new normal.“I deal with it in my own way…I joke about it a lot. Some people take it right and some people don’t.”


Harriett Warf is a therapist in Lewisburg with Seneca Mental Health. She said the holidays can be particularly tough for people dealing with the aftermath of a natural disaster. Humor is a great coping mechanism.


“It takes them outside of their own turmoil,” she explained.


“This, their first holiday, [they] may be still living with family members and not in their own home. There’s just a lot of difficult things that people cope with,” said Warf.


Warf said she has been seeing a lot of clients since West Virginia’s floods – most are struggling with anxiety that is particularly triggered by bad weather.


But not everyone’s experience with recovery is the same.


Gay is Nicely’s new next door neighbor. A single mom, she and her two children, ages 12 and 10 were in Florida on vacation during June’s flooding. She said she and her children haven’t experienced the same trauma that many of her neighbors have because they didn’t watch the waters rise, they just saw the aftermath. They still experienced loss, though....20 years of accumulated belongings.


“I lost all of their Christmas ornaments and all of the decorations they’ve made over the years and their baby’s first Christmas ornaments that I had made when they were born,” said Gay. “But it’s all just stuff and we’re here, and that’s what matters, and that’s what we’re focused on right now.”


For Gay, the floods were a roundabout blessing. Her prior home was more than 100 years old, and was still co-owned with her ex-husband. Now, she’s able to start over.


“We get a brand new home, which we never thought would happen in a million years. So that’s one of the pulls to coming here,” she said.  


For her, the holidays aren’t that different – they usually celebrate with family away from White Sulphur Springs. But “we’re a little more appreciative this year than we probably were last year, honestly. Because everything is taken for granted, honestly, until it is taken away.”


Gay and Nicely are two of three families who have moved into Hope Village so far. Three more should be able to move in by Christmas. But recovery is a slow process. Across the state, hundreds are still living with family, in campers or temporary housing. But do you remember that statement that was repeated over and over right after the floods? “West Virginians Helping West Virginians.” Neighbors and other caring folks are still here and Warf – the therapist – says leaning on them can go a long way on the path toward healing.


Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Benedum Foundation.