August 18, 2017|
When a leader was needed in the wake of the 2016 flood, Clendenin native Susan Jack selflessly answered the call. This past spring, she received the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Phoenix Award in recognition of her hard work and dedication to repair and rebuild her hometown.
By Kevin Duvall
For Susan Jack, the 2016 flood in Clendenin, WV, was a time of both physical and personal rebuilding. Jack was ready to leave her hometown before the flood hit. Her job was ending on June 30, and her daughter had just finished her sophomore year at Herbert Hoover High School. The two were planning to move to Dayton, Ohio, where Jack had plans to pursue a new employment opportunity.
Within two weeks of the planned move, the flood changed everything. Clendenin lost all of its businesses as well as many in nearby communities along the Elk River, and it had no electricity or streetlights. Across the state, homes were destroyed, and 23 West Virginians lost their lives. The devastation was personal for Jack, who was not only robbed of everything but her house, but who also witnessed firsthand the immediate aftereffects of the catastrophe.
“As soon as the waters receded, I drove into the town of Clendenin, swerving around obstacles in the roadways like trees, outbuildings, RVs, flooded cars, downed power lines and all sorts of massive debris fields,” says Jack. “The roads were completely or nearly washed away in many places. There was utter devastation everywhere. My father called me on my cell and asked me what Clendenin looked like. My response was, ‘It’s gone, Dad. It looks like a nuclear bomb went off here.’ I remember pulling to the side of the road and just crying for the longest time.”
Jack’s connection to the town of Clendenin dates back to before the Civil War when her family first moved to the area. It’s where she was raised and where she raised her own daughter, and it’s a place she has always cherished.
“When I was a child, Clendenin was a wonderful place to grow up,” she says. “There was constant activity in town and many things to do there. Over the years, industries moved out in large measure, and the town did not evolve economically. The Clendenin I have known for the last 20-plus years no longer resembled the one I grew up in, and the 2016 flood was nearly the knockout punch.”
Knowing how deeply the people around her had been affected, Jack cancelled her moving plans, choosing to stay and help the town she loves. She has an extensive background in construction and project management and a master’s degree in industrial safety from Marshall University, and she wanted to use these skills to aid Clendenin’s rebuilding effort.
Organizing the Effort
The early days of the relief effort were the most challenging. Jack saw a need for an organized effort, and driven by her strong sense of loyalty to her hometown, she took it upon herself to start one. The first step was to use Facebook to disseminate information about flood damage and what kind of help people needed, as well as coordinate and dispatch workers to where rebuilding projects needed to be started. She also used Facebook to reach out to volunteer organizations, and three weeks into the relief effort, groups began coming from around the state to pitch in.
Once the manpower was in place, Jack acted as a construction foreman, overseeing workers and helping them repair damages in homes, as well as mucking homes, preparing houses for electrical wiring, de-molding basements and delivering supplies to people who needed them. Steadily, volunteers were able to clean up the mud and debris, often in temperatures of 90 degrees or higher with limited supplies.
Representing West Virginia
Among the many personal sacrifices Jack made to help rebuild Clendenin, she was voluntarily unemployed for 10 months after the flood. In April 2017, she was named the executive director of the Greater Kanawha Long-Term Recovery Committee. In the same month, she received the Phoenix Award for Outstanding Contributions to Disaster Recovery by a Volunteer, a national award from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA).
The SBA gives Phoenix Awards for disaster recovery to three individuals or organizations each year—one small business, one public official and one volunteer. Jack was nominated after WV MetroNews produced a story about her in November 2016, and later she received a call from the SBA’s Washington, D.C., office that she had won.
“Obviously I felt greatly honored to be representing my town—Clendenin—and the state of West Virginia,” she says. “However, I had a rush of guilt as well knowing that the job was not done here and that people were still in need.”
Jack was invited to attend award ceremonies in both Fairmont, WV, and Washington, D.C. “I don’t think it all hit me until I was in Washington, D.C., taking the stage and seeing the standing ovation from all in attendance,” she says.
While she had prepared an acceptance speech, before taking the stage she decided to speak from the heart instead.
“I spoke of how honored I was to be receiving the award and of my feelings of guilt and why,” she recalls. “I spoke of the devastation that occurred in Clendenin and the continuing struggles people were having. I thanked everyone involved and the many volunteers that had descended on our area to assist. I then accepted the award on behalf of the people of my hometown of Clendenin and of the Elk River valley in the great state of West Virginia. To my amazement, I actually saw people in the crowd crying. It was a moment I’ll never forget.”
A year after the flood, the relief effort has moved into the next stage of building new houses. Clendenin’s next step will be implementing a new economic development plan, which will go hand in hand with further recovery plans. With the hard work and resolve of Clendenin’s citizens and the continued assistance of volunteers, Jack believes the town will fully recover within five years.
“I think you’ll see a completely different Clendenin two to five years down the road,” says Jack. “The future is bright. We’re going to see this thing through. We’re not going anywhere until it’s done.”