For West Virginians, especially those in the southern part of the state, the world stopped spinning on June 23, 2016. Torrential rainfall caused rivers to swell and a devastating flood across several counties.
A little more than one year since the catastrophic event, families continue to mourn the loss of 24 lives, and communities carry on the rebuilding of businesses, homes and the lives that remain.
“Every time there’s a heavy rain or a flood warning, southern West Virginia seems to hold its breath. A year after the flooding, the hope and resiliency of those impacted continues to inspire me,” said Heather Beeseck, Disaster Relief VISTA at West Virginia University’s VISTA Collaborative. “Many homes, roads and businesses have been rebuilt, but the impact of the flood is never far from anyone’s mind. Buildings still show damage, bridges are still washed away and families are still displaced.”
Throughout the past year, WVU has been at the forefront of flood relief efforts. Most recently, as part of their orientation, the WVU College of Business and Economics’ new MBA class put on their business and volunteer hats to help with ongoing flood relief.
On June 8, 32 MBA students traveled to Greenbrier County with the WVU Center for Service and Learning (CSL) and AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers. While there, they divided into eight teams with a VISTA volunteer as a lead for each team. The teams met with 33 businesses throughout the day that had received a grant through the RISE West Virginia program, which was co-sponsored by state government and Intuit CEO and West Virginia native Brad Smith.
“Business owners impacted by the flooding were eligible to receive grants of up to $10,000 each. The goal of the program is to help flood-affected communities rebuild in a way that promotes economic prosperity, ideally enabling these communities to flourish beyond even the pre-flood levels,” she said. “In the initial months after the flood, the program gave grants to 116 small business owners in Greenbrier County alone.”
Unfortunately, state government does not have the resources to follow up with each of these business owners, so the West Virginia Small Business Development Center (SBDC) turned to the WVU CSL. And that is where the MBA students stepped up to the plate. During the trip, the teams met with small business owners from shops like Aggie’s Something Sweet Something Country in downtown Lewisburg and Walls Fine Art Gallery in White Sulphur Springs to chat with them about their recovery progress.
“Students asked questions about how the grant money was used, what needs the businesses still have, the economic impact of the flooding, and the timetable for recovery. In the process, many students were also able to hear stories of how small business owners were leaders in their communities in the weeks after the flood, helping their communities while they themselves were struggling. During each visit, the students took notes and photos, which have been given to the SBDC to help the state track the progress of businesses they’ve assisted,” Beeseck said.
Throughout the day, it became evident the information the students collected was invaluable to the state’s long-term recovery efforts. It will be an ongoing process for years to come, but the students were able to see firsthand that the state and its people remain resilient.
“When we got to Greenbrier County and started speaking with business owners and individuals who took part in the flood recovery pertaining to their own businesses, it took the business side to a personal, more human level,” said Carli Yoho, a MBA student from Cleveland, Ohio. “It was humbling to see how thankful these businesses were for the financial support they had received and they were proud with how far they have come in the last year, but showed enthusiasm toward future sales. The Mountaineer tenacity was shown within these individuals.”
While Yoho is a native of Ohio, she was living in Morgantown during the time of the flooding, so she was safe in the northern part of the state. But she said she can relate to the devastation because her family’s home in Cleveland was flooded last year. “To watch your damaged stuff, memories and valuables you work hard to attain be thrown away, or have to throw them away yourself, it’s a hard task,” she said.
What most of the students didn’t realize going in that day was the impact it actually had on the communities and businesses from an economic standpoint. While the flood caused massive destruction and physical damage, it also caused a shift in the business landscape. What was once a tourist destination with The Greenbrier Classic and the world-renowned resort, local businesses are now suffering a year later from lack of visitors to the area.
“A slogan we often hear while working in White Sulphur Springs is ‘resilient as a dandelion.’ A dandelion can prosper in almost any circumstances, and these business owners are doing just that,” Beeseck said. “The affected communities and especially their local business owners are committed to rebuilding in a way that will leave them even stronger than before the floods. By listening to their stories and offering support, we can give help in the ways it is needed most.”
This service learning project was obviously beneficial to both to the businesses and the government, but students walked away with a new sense of Mountaineer pride that day. Patricia Slagel, the assistant director of advising and student operations for graduate programs, oversaw the trip for the MBA students, and said she noticed a change in perception as the students returned to the bus at the end of the day.
“For us, the initiative started by thinking how we can make orientation better for the students, and we thought a service learning project was a great idea. We wanted them to work together toward a common goal,” she said. “On the way down to Greenbrier County, they got to know each other a little bit, but on the way back to Morgantown, there was a shift. They had great conversations about what they had seen. It made a big impact on them. For those who are not from West Virginia, it was kind of a wakeup call. For those who are from West Virginia, it was amazing how many had never been to that part of the state.”
In addition to the data collected for the state, the MBA students also collected their own data, which they will use for a class project. For their efforts that day, each student received eight volunteer hours and had an overall impact value of $5,371.
As days go on, there is more work to be done to help these areas fully rebound.
“At the end of the day, some of the students asked me how they can return to continue assisting with this project,” Beeseck said. “Now that they’ve seen the need, they want to continue to serve. That’s the culture WVU is working to build.”