Storm recovery volunteers needed
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Disaster relief agencies are struggling to coordinate services for thousands of people who need food, shelter and other assistance because last Friday's storm knocked out power and communication systems in nearly every county in West Virginia.
On Tuesday, the American Red Cross said it was recruiting an additional 80 volunteers to West Virginia. The Red Cross now has 50 volunteers scattered across the state.
"They're coming in because we've been inundated with just so many requests," said Debra Palmer, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross in West Virginia. "We need more help."
Palmer said many West Virginia-based Red Cross volunteers were outside the state to help victims of wildfires in Colorado and flooding in Minnesota when the storm hit West Virginia Friday night.
"We're short-staffed, and there are just so many issues we're dealing with," Palmer said.
The Red Cross has been talking with state officials, church groups and the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, which planned to send five "feeding trucks" to West Virginia later this week.
The groups are still trying to find the best locations for shelters and emergency food stations. Coordination has proved difficult because many counties still don't have cellphone or Internet service, agency officials said Tuesday.
"Our struggle has been getting information," said Jeff Allen, executive director of the West Virginia Council of Churches. "That's been the struggle for everyone."
Also, the storm caused damage in all but two counties in West Virginia. State officials and disaster relief agencies had no recent experience with a statewide emergency.
"It's the first time since the 1985 floods that we've had a crisis like this," said Allen, who also serves as a volunteer with the West Virginia Chapter of the Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, a group that coordinates emergency assistance planning. "Figuring out how to respond is a challenge. We're going to learn a lot of lessons from this."
During a conference call earlier this week, tensions flared over where to put an emergency feeding station that would serve Fayette County residents.
The Red Cross suggested setting up emergency kitchens in Summersville and Lewisburg -- towns located in counties that border Fayette County.
John David, director of the nonprofit Southern Appalachian Labor School, argued that Fayette County needed a feeding site in the central part of the county -- preferably in Oak Hill.
David said Friday's storm left 90 percent of Fayette residents without water, food, phone service.
"There is chaos, disorganization and fighting," David wrote in an email sent to state officials and disaster relief organizations.
Most Fayette County residents have no way of getting to Summersville and Lewisburg, he said.
"We've got 45,000 people in Fayette County," David said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "Nobody has cash, nobody has gas. They can't drive to Summersville for supper."
David added that state officials are asking counties to send requests for assistance via email, but that's impossible without cell phone or Internet service.
"There's a lack of clarity right now with what is happening," he said. "It just seems like we weren't ready for this. I don't want to go backward, but clearly we need to have more coordination."
Palmer of the Red Cross said the group is doing the best it can with the resources it has on the ground.
"The whole idea is to serve the most people the most effectively," she said. "And that's a function of the resources we have available."
Doug Erickson, a Red Cross volunteer from North Carolina, was one of more than 50 people stationed at the state's emergency command center at the state Capitol Tuesday.
"The requests are coming in one after another," Erickson said. "They say people want ice, they're looking for ice, they're looking everywhere for ice. We need to come up with the best delivery methods to keep people fed and hydrated."
Amy Goodwin, a spokeswoman for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, said the Governor's Office has worked day and night since the storm hit. The office has fielded hundreds of calls from West Virginians seeking help.
"We've never dealt with a disaster like this before," Goodwin said. "We have been boots on the ground 'round the clock. There is no beginning, no end to the day."
On Tuesday, Tomblin announced he would hold a food drive in front of the Governor's Mansion along Kanawha Boulevard. Food pantries across the state are running low on canned goods and other nonperishable items.
The food will be trucked to Mountaineer Food Bank and Huntington Food Bank, then shipped to pantries and soup kitchens in 50 counties in West Virginia.
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com or 304-348-4869.