By Staff Sgt. Nathanial Taylor, 167AW/PA
/ Published August 07, 2016
MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- On June 23 the State of West Virginia was hit with what experts have called a once-in-a-thousand year meteorological event that dumped more than 8 inches of rain over parts of the state and resulted in record levels of flooding over a two-day period.
The resulting flash floods swept through towns leading to unprecedented destruction across the state leaving more than 500,000 people without power, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage, and left at least 23 people dead.
As the severity of the disaster became apparent, W.Va. Governor Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency in 44 of the state's 55 counties and called up the National Guard to aide in relief and rescue efforts.
The 167th Airlift Wing in Martinsburg, W.Va., along with other Air and Army National Guard units throughout the state, answered that call.
The 167th, which is located in Berkeley County, one of the 11 unaffected counties in the state, immediately began to mobilize Airmen to aide in the recovery and relief efforts with a total of 34 members traveling to affected areas to provide direct support, 55 members supplying home station support, and seven personnel providing support in an official civilian capacity.
Two of those sent directly to affected areas to provide support and manpower were Staff Sgt. Myron Morrell and Senior Airman Joseph Moffett, air transportation specialists with the 167th Small Air Terminal.
The pair was tasked with driving four-wheel drive vehicles into hard-to-access areas in order to allow federal and state officials to evaluate affected areas for funding.
While both had seen pictures of the initial damage, pictures barely began to touch what the damage actually looked like, they said.
"Cameras can't begin to even grasp some of the damage that those places endured," Morrell said. "All of the damage coupled with the intense heat and the smell, it was sobering. Seeing the people's reactions when they returned to what was their home for the first time was hard."
While the sheer amount of damage that was caused was breathtaking, the human aspect, the emotional side of seeing people lose everything and not knowing what they were going to do was hard, Moffett said.
"You can't take it all in at once," he said. "You see it, but then later you think back on it and you ask yourself, 'where are they now, how are they eating, what are they doing for water?' It's hard to imagine."
The devastation of the floods and the amount of damage done dominated media coverage of the disaster. However, what went mostly unreported was the spirit and determination of the residents, the people of West Virginia, to clean up, rebuild and thrive despite what had happened.
"Half the time, we would try and give people food and water, people who had no running water and no means of buying anything, and they would tell us to 'give it to someone else who actually needed it,'" Moffett said. "The people would see me in my uniform and instantly walk up to me and ask me how I was doing and thank me for coming down, they were extremely appreciative that we were there."
Tech. Sgt. Brian Grim, a 167th aircrew flight equipment technician who was a part of the cleanup and removal efforts in Clendenin W.Va., had similar experiences with the people he encountered.
"The people were amazing to us," Grim said. "They took us in like we belonged to their community. It seemed as if the people asking us if we needed water, or people offering us food were never ending."
Guard units are unique from the other components of the military in that they serve their home state in addition to serving the country's national security interests. With that, comes the added duty of being available for times of natural disaster, an aspect that is often utilized by governors in order to speed recovery and relief efforts.
While not an everyday part of the traditional war-fighting mission, state duty is an important aspect of being in the National Guard, said Grim.
"As a member of the Air National Guard this type of mission is important because it's part of our duty," Grim said. "It is also important because we have the ability and tools to help others in need. [These kinds of missions] help us create a bond with the community that we need as much as they do."
Grim added that above everything else, "The first thing that comes to mind is that we have to take care of our fellow West Virginians, Americans, and human beings in general."
As of writing, the cleanup efforts in most of the affected areas have transitioned to focus on rebuilding and recovery. The National Guard has, for the most part, drawn down its relief operations though aid continues to be made available from federal and state agencies as well as from donations and supply drives from unaffected areas across the state.
While the damage, both physically and emotionally, of the rain and subsequent floods cannot be overstated, the response by the National Guard and the people of West Virginia shows that a positive attitude, mental toughness and a strong sense of community can shine through even the darkest of clouds.