“It has known sunshine and rain in 100 years, but I know of no state – and I know this state well – whose people feel more strongly, who have a greater sense of pride in themselves, in their state and their country, than the people of West Virginia.”
President Kennedy relayed those words to a rapt and rain soaked audience in 1960. It was West Virginia’s 100th birthday. Fast forward 56 years and the celebration of the state’s birth was still marked by rain. Lots of rain. The rivers in Southern West Virginia started to rise and shortly after, flash flood warnings started scrolling across the bottom of the television screens. Then, there were no more television screens as power outages swept the state. Within 24 hours, the state experienced one of its worst floods in history.
Social media quickly filled with otherworldly images and videos connecting us safe from the flooding directly to the devastation. People were missing and stranded, belongings were missing and entire homes were picked up in the swells of the water.
However, as I watched one of the most beautiful parts of my state – a place where I have family and where I spent a good deal of time growing up – be ravaged by the floods, I couldn’t help the immense sense of pride that welled inside me as I watched the people of West Virginia mobilize.
I am fiercely protective over my state and its image. I am simultaneously pulled to reject the stereotypes often pushed onto the state’s residents while embracing what it means to be a West Virginian. I want to yell from the top of the mountains that I am from West Virginia, and I proud to call these mountains home and her residents my friends. This natural disaster solidified my pride in my state and it revealed the true spirit of West Virginia.
There is no doubt that the spirit of West Virginia is in her people. Without asking, residents started clearing out their closets to provide clothing to those who only had the clothes on their backs. The Greenbrier Resort opened its ballrooms, guest rooms, and numerous other areas of free space to those whose homes were destroyed. Residents deployed to safe areas to start cooking to feed the masses who had nowhere to go. West Virginia took care of her own.
Even those who had absolutely nothing left were willing to help those who might have even less to their names. Residents of Lewisburg of all ages are spending these days after the flood helping others recover, including recent high school graduate Ali Montie.
“There was a man who I was volunteering with who was making us laugh and he just seemed to be a pretty happy guy. He was there the whole day. Towards the end of the day he came up and grabbed deodorant from the place where we were making bags to give to people. I thought he was just taking advantage of the donations because a lot of people were, so I was a little put off. Then he said ‘Well I may not have a shower, I may not have any clean underwear, and I may not have anything else, but I will ensure my armpits don’t stink. So if you guys smell something tomorrow it may be me, but it won’t be my armpits.’ I guess I just didn’t expect someone who had lost everything to be able to be so cheerful,” Ali said.
This embodies the spirit of West Virginia. Two people working side by side to restore the beautiful state and her people. Together, we will overcome any obstacle given to us. We are a state born from adversity. We are tough, hard working people with a grit born into us as Mountaineers.
Churches, schools, sports teams, businesses and individuals were quick to start collecting supplies and cleaning up the damage in the heart of the disaster. We could have waited for out-of-state help and government assistance, but we knew what we had to do and we did it.
“I think being a West Virginian means being humble. We are kind, we work hard, we help each other. We don’t get much national recognition, but our people are some of the best in the land,” Generation MOV President Pam Ferrell said.
This is not to say that we were not eternally grateful for the out-of-state, military and government assistance, because we are. I can’t describe the times that I was brought to tears after seeing another company or church organization deploying to my beloved state. Never in my life has the sight of the Duracell Power Truck brought chills to my arms, but it did when they were there for my people. Returning from Southern West Virginia, I passed a P&G Disaster Relief Truck headed south and I was instantly filled with pride for my state and her people.
West Virginia holds the hearts of many. Part time resident and New Orleans Saints Quarterback Drew Brees assisted with Tide Loads of Hope near the training facility on the grounds of the Greenbrier, Brad Paisley started a GoFundMe that has reached over 50% of its $1 million goal in under a week with the help of Jennifer Garner, and professional golfer Bubba Watson has pledged money to the rebuilding of our state.
In a time when it would have been easy to turn our backs, we embraced each other and lifted each other high. “To me being a West Virginian means not up and leaving this beautiful state when times get hard. It’s too beautiful, too sacred not to stay,” Parkersburg resident Katy Sprouse said.
President Kennedy included another line in his speech that is still heart wrenchingly true today in the wake of our tragedy. “The sun does not always shine in West Virginia, but the people always do.”