While much of America will be glued to media sources this evening, today’s election seems very distant to Jill Becker and those she is surrounded by on the hurricane-hit East Coast.
“Someone asked me, ‘Is there still an election?’”
There is, of course, but residents of Webster Springs in Webster County, W.Va., have other things on their minds.
That area was slammed by Hurricane Sandy, which dumped about 6 feet of snow in the higher elevations, according to newspaper reports. Power failures and roads clogged with trees meant most supply chains were severed, noted a story in the Charleston Daily Mail, adding that 80 percent of county residents were without power late last week.
Becker experienced it up close when she arrived Thursday after struggling to make airline connections upon leaving Walla Walla on Wednesday — “Still in the same clothes after 24 hours,” she said.
The well-seasoned volunteer was one of the first American Red Cross workers to arrive in the hills of West Virginia just as officials were going from “local mode” to getting national Red Cross attention, Becker said. She was sent to Webster Springs, where the First United Methodist Church had already started transforming into a shelter.
“They had never done it, but they got a generator and had one warm room and had started feeding people. As soon as the electricity went off, they got all the food out of the schools’ refrigerators. The wonderful pastor and his wife just did this.”
Brandon and Amy Moll and their congregation were taking on medical patients, as well. “They were kind of out of their league, but they got help. They went to the hospital and called for emergency disaster services.”
The town has a population under 1,000 but serves as a hub for outlying areas, the Becker said. “In a way, the town is like Walla Walla, people come from all over.”
Her arrival was most welcome, Becker discovered. “I walked in and their eyes got huge, they were so relieved I was there. We are told ‘don’t come to take over,’ but they wanted us in every way.”
Before names could even be exchanged, Becker was asked to decide if the church-turned-shelter could accept a just-released patient who needed a source of electricity for oxygen.
Official Red Cross policy is no one gets turned away, she said. “There were no nurses here yet, so I assessed the situation and decided we would take him. I knew if there was a problem, I could still call 911.”
Only then did formal introductions begin and Becker swung into full-time work of long days and one-third of each night shift. “I set up registration and everyone helped me, I just included them. They are following me around and learning.”
In Webster Springs, many people affected by the deep snow and blocked roads have declined to leave their homes, relying on wood stoves for heat and cooking, Becker said. “And one family built a fire outside and they cook ramen noodles over it.”
The Red Cross is using emergency response vehicles to get ready-to-eat meals to homes, some of which are today getting plowed out after six days, she noted. “We’ve given out over 2,000 meals and served close to 500 meals in four days.”
Even before the storm, the area — largely reliant on the mining industry — struggled financially. Many families in Webster County need government assistance, which is dispensed by bank-issued debit-style cards. Although the town’s electricity has been restored, there is no other service, such as Internet, TV and phone. Meaning the bank cannot process those assistance cards, Becker said.
Despite all the ripple effects of Sandy, people in Webster Springs have refused hopelessness, she said.
“So many are shining examples of everyone doing their part in this time of need.”
People jumped in to clean the church, top to bottom, for Sunday services, and children are helping serve at mealtimes. “I am experiencing the perfect example of people helping people … but I am always more blessed than they are.”
Just this morning was the first smattering of election talk by those living at the shelter, Becker said by phone. More on people’s minds is the double-edged sword of being ignored by national media and “huge” gratitude for those who donate to the American Red Cross.
“Webster Springs wants to thank them. They knew you were going to call,” Becker said.
“On this Election Day, I couldn’t be prouder to be an American.”