By Laura Sykes
RAINELLE, W.Va. (BP) — Rob Bowen had a decision to make. Flee rising floodwaters or help others find safety. The night of the historic flooding in West Virginia, Bowen and his wife Terri decided they would aid their neighbors.
The couple quickly took action. Strapping a light to his forehead, Bowen, a former coal miner, said he found himself out in the darkness in his kayak with a friend searching for neighbors in his hometown of Rainelle, like 86-year-old Joan Burns.
“I had to go and check on my neighbor to see if she was okay,” Bowen said.
Burns, who lives alone next to the Bowens’ hardware store, Redstar Home Supply, pointed her flashlight through her window to signal the men, who then managed to move her to safety. Southern Baptists Disaster Relief (SBDR) volunteers are now helping Burns return to her home.
Bowen and his friend worked until daybreak with one small boat tied to the kayak, rescuing 18 people in the town of 1,500 in late June. From higher ground, Terri Bowen relayed messages from those trapped in their homes to her husband as he searched from the floodwaters. Tragically, the flood claimed 23 lives that night — 15 from Rainelle. About 100 rescues were reported.
“I was just out helping people, doing what I had to do,” Bowen said.
“I was really worried with him out there in the water all night,” Terri said. The Bowen home would survive undamaged, but their business took on almost six feet of floodwater.
Bowen chose to help his neighbors while the couple’s business was taking on floodwaters, costing them thousands of dollars of inventory, said his pastor, Zed Volpe, of Calvary Baptist Church in nearby Meadow Bridge, W.Va.
“This is Christianity 101,” Volpe said. “Rob and Terri have been awesome.” About 100 Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR) volunteers and others serving from Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia have been housed at Calvary since the flood, the pastor said. Church members have served around the clock since the storm hit to help their neighbors and SBDR volunteers.
While the town of Meadow Bridge did not suffer any damages, the church has several members who live in Rainelle and one member who died during the flooding that destroyed more than 200 homes, Volpe said. Meadow Bridge High School will help house volunteers until school starts, he added.
Damage was so extensive, SBDR opened a command site in Rainelle. Don Owen, director of operations at the site, helped set up the command center with his team from Tennessee. Owen said he’ll never forget the response of the people and the mayor of Rainelle the day SBDR came to serve. “They were so excited when we arrived,” Owen said.
Previously, teams served from SBDR’s incident command post in Lewisburg about 25 miles away. Due to the need, and travel time to and from Lewisburg, a fourth site was set up in Rainelle. SBDR also continues to operate command sites in Greenbrier, Kanawha and Nicholas counties.
The Rainelle site is in the parking lot of Bowen’s hardware store on Main Street. A North American Mission Board (NAMB) Send Relief trailer filled with cleaning supplies, blankets and water is located there to serve the community along with the command team. The Bowens also welcomed volunteers to use an apartment above their store.
“They told us that their property was our property and to use it anyway we needed to help the people of Rainelle,” Owen said.
Bill Johnson is serving as deputy incident command leader in Greenbrier, managing relief efforts on behalf of NAMB. He said SBDR is thankful for the Bowens’ graciousness.
“In a small town, everyone comes to the hardware store,” Johnson said. “It gave us instant credibility in the community. Because of the Bowens, we have a Southern Baptist presence in Rainelle.”
Johnson noted a sustained need for volunteers for mud-outs and for those with construction skills as the work transitions from long-term recovery into rebuild.
Pastor Kerry Hinton of Lynnhaven Baptist Church in Pocomoke, Md., served with seven members of the church and another SBDR volunteer from Virginia on a two-day tear-out for Rainelle homeowner Gail McKinney.
McKinney’s home took on four feet of floodwater. The team helped remove mud and debris from the home while helping the 72-year-old sort through her water-soaked belongings.
“Volunteers worked with wonderful compassionate hearts, letting her tell her story and start the healing process,” Hinton said.
“A lot of people say that our town is going to be like a ghost town with so many moving out,” McKinney said. “We like our town and I hope it gets back on its feet.”
“It’s a lot of mud and a lot of heartache here, but people have come to help us from everywhere,” Terri Bowen said.
A recent Facebook post from the Redstar Home Supply page reads: “How about those workers coming from all over to help our town! You guys are amazing and really display the Lord’s love for us. We are looking forward to seeing what the next chapter (holds) of ‘being from Rainelle’ … We look forward to easier days ahead … God bless.”
To learn more about how you can help, contact the Baptist convention in your state or go to namb.net/dr-donations. For phone donations, call 1-866-407-NAMB (6262) or mail checks to NAMB, P.O. Box 116543, Atlanta, GA 30368-6543. Designate checks for “Disaster Relief.”
Church leaders can explore how Send Relief comes alongside churches and state conventions to aid in times of disaster and meet other needs for relief across North America at namb.net/sendrelief.