McMechen Residents Bend, But Don’t Break After Tough Year

Photo by Alan Olson A cross made of logs marks the former site of the First Church of God in McMechen, which was destroyed by fire June 3.

McMECHEN — During 2017, McMechen residents fought a losing battle to keep Bishop Donahue High School open, saw flames consume a longtime community fixture and watched floodwater ravage their neighborhoods.

It’s been a difficult year to say the least for the small Marshall County community of about 1,800, but residents and city leaders have noticed that spirits remain unbroken, with efforts to recover from these setbacks tinged with positivity.

“We took one terrible night, and all of these people came to our community, for weeks, to help us,” City Clerk Julie Bratton said of the flash flooding which damaged hundreds of buildings in the city July 28-29.

“We’ve had our share of disasters, but there’s something pretty amazing when you watch an entire community and state come together. One resident, her street was completely flooded, but her house wasn’t, so she was out with her kids and a shovel. We got to see the best of people.”

Several hundred McMechen residents sustained water damage, compounded by mud and silt which flowed in multiple directions at the bottom of some hills. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Guard arrived in force, along with numerous charitable organizations, to assess and alleviate damage.

That damage, in many cases, included furnaces. With frigid winter temperatures having set in, Bratton said the city fought hard to bring the heat back for affected residents in time, as long-term recovery planners speculated that doing so could take a year or more.

Bratton attributed the quick turnaround to the outpouring of donations the community received from area businesses and organizations, including A&B Kia and WesBanco.

“I said, we have got to get furnaces fixed,” Bratton recalled. “I came back, picked up the phone, and talked to the mayor, and we said … we’re going to put our own worksheets together, and we’re going out into the field because no one’s going without hot water or heat. And it’s done.”

Pam Campbell, a resident of 21st Street, said McMechen residents found themselves reluctant to accept aid as only weeks later, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma devastated much of the southeastern United States. As things finally begin to return to normal for some residents, she noted some repairs are being left unfinished for fear that another flood could strike again.

“We lost some things, including our fence, but we’re not going to put that back up ’til spring, because we thought it could happen again,” Campbell said. “We’re getting back. Our furnace is back up and running and our garage doors work again. We had five and a half feet of water in the basement — we lost everything in there. And when the current came down, it knocked out our fence and the garage doors on either side. When the water came, it swept everything out of the garage. Bicycles, tools … we still think, ‘Oh, yeah, we used to have one of those.'”

Campbell said their furnace had been fixed since early November, keeping their house warm as winter approached, although the air conditioning has not yet been replaced.

“We’re getting back together, a little bit at a time,” she added.

Mayor Gregg Wolfe said the flood put many of the city’s plans for recreation and infrastructure improvements on hold. Upgrading the city’s swimming pool takes a back seat, he said, when the pool’s shelters were used to coordinate cleanup efforts and distribute supplies.

“Some of the things that are issues … we already had these things started. But now, with the damage done to the streets and the systems, we have areas of concern. A lot of that’s covered by FEMA, but we don’t want to repave streets we’re going to dig up. We want to get all our ducks in a row, and get everything in order, so we’re not wasting money and time. It’s coming together, though. The further we get into it, the more the plan comes together.”

On June 3, less than two months before the flood came, the First Church of God caught fire, damaged so severely that it was razed shortly after. Relics salvaged from the church before demolition — including the church bell — still line the Rev. Mitchel Johnston’s driveway almost seven months later as the congregation decides what its next step will be.

Services were temporarily conducted in Center McMechen Elementary School before eventually moving to the McMechen-Benwood United Methodist Church, where services are now held every Sunday. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, Johnston said the fire had rekindled a sense of community among the congregation, with new members joining and familiar faces returning for the first time in years.

Although the growth has slowed in the intervening months, Johnston said the experience in working with the Methodist church has been eye-opening.

“My message, going into the new year is: Dream big dreams,” he said. “God has brought us something very special during this time, and had we not lost the building, there probably wouldn’t be these relationships with people we might not be talking to. It’s helped redirect us. It doesn’t soften the pain, but that’s what we’re doing each week.”

During the Christmas season, the church’s decorations found a new home with the congregation’s Methodist brothers and sisters.

“The Methodist church has been ecstatic. Their pastor has told us several times that it’s brought new life into their church. They’re excited to be helping us do this, and it’s encouraged them as a church to be able to help us out,” he said. “A lot of people were sad to look out here and not see the church lit up, but we’ve been active, through the fall with our ministries.”

Johnston said the church has a building committee that is making progress with local architects from eastern Ohio. While nothing is set in stone, he maintains faith that those efforts will bear fruit in the near future.

“We’re going to build a good church — a great church. That’s the people,” he said. “And one day, we’re going to put that church in a brand new building.”

In January, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston announced that with enrollment in decline, it would close Bishop Donahue High School after more than 60 years in operation. The decision prompted outcry from the community.

Before long, community organizers rallied together, creating the Save Bishop Donahue Foundation to continue their efforts in a unified manner. The foundation collected donations to try to keep the school open, but it graduated its last class in May.

In December, McMechen city officials entered into an agreement with the diocese to lease the structure for emergency use on a month-by-month basis as the city building remains too damaged from the July flood to use.

“The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston is extremely pleased to be able to offer the building to the city of McMechen,” Tim Bishop, a spokesman for the diocese, said previously. “It is our hope they will use the building for as long as they like as it remains a centerpiece of the community.”

The Bishop Donahue building also serves charitable efforts through Appalachian Outreach, which uses space there to store supplies and resources for upcoming outreach efforts.