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Jun 27, 5:17 PM EDT

Recovery underway in West Virginia town 'built to carry on'


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RAINELLE, W.Va. (AP) -- When the torrential rains stopped in the tiny West Virginia town of Rainelle, the volunteers started showing up.

By Monday, a small food line at a shopping plaza had ballooned from a couple of hundred hot dogs and hamburgers to a feast for flood victims - everything from bananas to cupcakes to nachos - and more hot dogs. Behind the food line, a large room was filled halfway to the ceiling with bags of donated clothing.

As volunteers sorted the items, the extent of last Thursday's deluge came into clearer focus: Thousands of homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed and at least 23 people were killed when up to 9 inches of rain fell in a short span, causing perhaps the worst flooding the state has seen in three decades. More than 400 people were living in shelters across the state.

"We haven't stopped feeding people," volunteer Kelsi Shawver said inside the Park Center shopping plaza. "I don't even know that I'd call it volunteering. I'm just here to help."

Some of the worst destruction was in Rainelle, a town of about 1,500 people surrounded by hills, the Meadow River and several tributaries. Founded by the Rainelle brothers, Thomas and John, and once home to the largest hardwood lumber mill in the world, the town's motto is "A town built to carry on ... building great things since 1906," according to its website .

The recovery and rebuilding has already begun. Along U.S. Route 60, the piles along the road came in two forms - ruined belongings and donated household supplies that needed to be picked up. At the shopping plaza, state troopers assisted with traffic flow and helped carry items to a supply drop-off and distribution center while helicopters buzzed overhead.

The Rainelle United Methodist Church, thought to be the largest structure in the world built entirely of American Chestnut lumber, had also turned into a donation center. The church basement flooded but the main level, which sits higher off the ground, was unscathed.

Cindy Chamberlain, who oversees the shopping center distribution center, said she worked with the American Red Cross during the massive response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

"It parallels Katrina. It is that bad," she said.

Chamberlain said she has seen an "amazing outpouring of love" from more than a dozen states, along with residents from throughout West Virginia. Because it's early in the response, she said she needs fewer donations of clothing and more items such as bottled water, cleaning supplies and money.

As food was served, the skies opened up and dropped more rain on the already-soaked town. Fortunately, most of the floodwaters had receded and there weren't any major problems after the brief downpour.

"That was the first thing that went through my head," Valerie Oney said. "I was like, 'Oh my, is this going to happen again? Are we sacrificing everything for nothing?"

Another downpour hit in the afternoon, but didn't stop workers at the church from handing out supplies.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said during a press conference in Clendenin, about 70 miles northwest of Rainelle, that thousands of homes were lost and there are "thousands of others that will need some kind of rehab done to them to fix them up. Same thing with businesses."

Clendenin Mayor Gary Bledsoe said 99 percent of the town's businesses were gone and 60 percent of the town's homes were destroyed. The town has a population of about 1,200 people. Tomblin didn't have any specific statewide numbers on the destruction.

The governor defended the state's preparation and response, but conceded they were caught off guard by an uncertain forecast and just how much rain fell in such a short amount of time.

"We didn't anticipate, I don't think, being as bad as it was with as heavy amounts as we had," the governor said. "I think that it just came up so fast and no one was expecting high water to this proportion."

Two men who were presumed dead when a camper was swept away in rushing waters were accounted for and the state revised its death toll Monday to 23. That number includes 20 bodies found and three people who are missing and presumed dead.

The drew comparisons to November 1985, floods that remain the state's most expensive natural disaster with more than $570 million in damage and 47 dead.

Some residents formed armed patrols to protect what was left of their homes and possessions after reports of looting.

Fayette County Sheriff Steve Kessler warned potential looters in a Facebook post that anyone caught would be arrested and jailed, according to WCHS-TV (http://bit.ly/28Yjjm8).

"If the residents of this area catch you first, you may not make it to jail," he said.

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Mattise reported from Clendenin, West Virginia.

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