After 3 disasters, no federal help for Va. town

AP News

10/15/2011 11:47:05 AM - AP News

Residents of this rural community just outside Richmond know they may be lucky, seeing as how no one died in the earthquake, hurricane and tornado that have hit back-to-back-to-back in the past few months. That doesn't mean they aren't bitter: "Louisa cares: Because the feds don't," read Friday's headline atop the local newspaper.

The federal government has refused to help foot the $18 million tab for the damage from the disaster trifecta, most of which was caused by the earthquake, leaving people to host fundraisers and help out neighbors because few homes and businesses had insurance. But they say they can't do it alone.

Many look at how bad things could have been and note no one was killed in any of the disasters that began when the 5.8-magnitude earthquake began in Louisa County on Aug. 23 and rumbled all along the East Coast. The hurricane and tornado were far less destructive _ the former bringing mostly heavy rain and wind gusts, the latter damaging only a plantation home dating to the 18th century. Still, they hope they're in the clear for a while.

"What's next and how much more does the good Lord think we can take?" asked 44-year-old Fran Grimm, as she helped set up for a community fundraiser in a muddy field near the local high school that closed after suffering cracked walls and damage to the roof from the earthquake. "It's a miracle that no one was hurt."

The disasters were themselves unlikely phenomena.

Although the area is in the seismically active central Virginia earthquake zone, the tremors are rarely felt. Only seven other tornadoes have rolled through the county since 1950, only one of which hit in October. And the county is located 150 miles from the coast, usually safe from hurricanes.

"It's a small town, you don't think about something like that happening like this, but it did," said Buddy Brooks, 72, while standing at a farmer's market and pumpkin stand in downtown Mineral, just a few miles from the town of Louisa. "It's the Lord's work I guess."

Gazing out the windshield while driving along the county's winding roads, nature's wrath isn't apparent in most places. But upon closer inspection, houses can be seen patched with plastic and wood planks where brick should be, windows torn from supports, and crumbled decks and chimneys.

The earthquake damaged nearly all the county's 200 pre-Civil War era homes, and the tremor brought down ceiling tiles, emptied shelves, and opened long cracks in concrete floors at businesses throughout the community. At one point, locals said some residents were living in tents because their houses were uninhabitable.

Last week, the state learned the Federal Emergency Management Agency had rejected its application for assistance for individuals whose homes or businesses were damaged in the earthquake. Gov. Bob McDonnell said he will appeal FEMA's decision, and he invited President Barack Obama to stop by Louisa County to see the damage firsthand while he's in Virginia next week promoting his jobs plan. Obama turned down the invitation on Friday.

"It's a small county that is facing some big challenges and is just asking for a little help," said Tucker Martin, a spokesman for McDonnell. "Earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes are natural disasters. The failure of the federal government to help Louisa citizens in this difficult time is a manmade one."

The county has documented about $18 million in damage to 900 houses, including more than two dozen that were destroyed in the earthquake. Only about two dozen had quake insurance, and most are looking at an average repair bill ranges from about $8,500 for minor repairs to about $73,000 for major damage. There are more than 460 homes with self-reported damage that the county hasn't even inspected.

Additionally, the county said damages to commercial properties and businesses tallied in at about $645,000, and buildings like churches and other non-profit groups had about $1 million in damages. Officials said costs related to replacing the local high school and an elementary school damaged by the earthquake will likely top $64 million.

As federal, state and local crews reassessed the quake-torn community, others prepared for the fundraiser featuring bands, vendors and local organizations to help raise money for their neighbors, a common sentiment these days.

"It seems like when things happen elsewhere, we're always there to help them and then it comes to us and there's nobody here," said 52-year-old Brenda Mastin of Mineral. "They're a little upset about not getting any help, but beside that, the county's really come together."

Support among neighbors has been especially important in this tight-knit community as the more recent tornado, and another 3.0-magnitude tremor on Wednesday had locals wondering what else is in store for the community. More than 40 aftershocks that have rattled the county since the August quake also are keeping residents on edge.

"Mother Nature is Mother Nature. She's unpredictable, and all you can do is recover afterward, and that's really how our community is handling it," county spokeswoman Amanda Reidelbach said. "The funds and support from the community is tremendous, but the extent of the damage ... it's not something that our local community or local government can repair."