A look at the recovery process in White Sulphur Springs, WV near Greenbrier, the site of New Orleans Saints 2016 Training Camp.
Photos by Layne Murdoch Jr./New Orleans Saints
White Sulphur Springs, W. Va. - It's not a utopian scenario by any stretch of the imagination, the New Orleans Saints arriving at training camp in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., greeted by a community that has been ravaged by a natural disaster.
The flood waters that rushed through the city and Greenbrier County just less than five weeks ago – dumping one-in-1,000-year amounts of water, according to meteorologists – shoved houses off foundations and essentially splintered them, if they didn't push them into other structures.
White Sulphur Springs recorded 9.37 inches of rain in the two-day period from June 23-24; however, the combination of steep mountains, narrow valleys and onslaught of storms proved to be the deadly combination that would send waters rushing through the town of 2,441 residents (according to a count in 2014).
The remnants of destruction are evident. More than 20 deaths statewide attributable to the flood. Former homes reduced to piles of wood, listing to one side or snuggled up to another home as if having attempted to withstand the waters by bracing against another battered neighbor. Trees lining the creek that runs through the city, uprooted like twigs by the battering current. Businesses closed until further notice.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) personnel at every turn, crisscrossing the city and county, assessing damage.
And yet, among professional sports franchises, the Saints might be the most uniquely qualified to handle just such a scenario.
Portions of West Virginia are eerily reminiscent of New Orleans and its metro area, post Hurricane Katrina. Activity, and sometimes the lack thereof, is strikingly similar to what the Saints encountered upon returning to their home base after a season away in San Antonio.
The franchise, as much as any, understands how much a community needs a lift and rallying point after disaster has struck.
Mindful of that, maybe it really is no surprise that the Saints will be holding training camp at The Greenbrier for the third consecutive year, hosted by a community that's appreciative of their return.
"That's remarkable (that the Saints returned)," White Sulphur Springs Mayor Lloyd Haynes said, "and we're happy that the Saints are coming back this year. It'll lift the spirits of the people a little bit more, to see that other people are thinking about White Sulphur Springs.
"For them to be able to contribute in ways like that, it shows that we're not shut off from the world. The world sees White Sulphur Springs and the devastation that we're experiencing, and is willing to help."
"They didn't give up on us and our community," said Amy Ratliff, a hair stylist/nail specialist who owns Brushed by Amy. Ratliff's business had some water and mud intrusion, but damage was minimal and she reopened seven to 10 days ago.
"They saw how we can come together and it just shows that we're going to make it, we're going to get through it," she said. "We call the Saints the White Sulphur Saints. They're a part of us too, now, since they've been coming here."
Those "White Sulphur" Saints will provide relief similar to the relief they provided upon their return to New Orleans.
"I think it'll be a great diversion for the town," said 37-year resident Bob Neff, owner of Bob Neff Insurance Services. "Everybody has been centered around cleanup, the loss of life, the loss of property. To have a diversion to turn people's attention from the day-to-day mess and the stress and the cleanup, I think it'll be wonderful.
"I've even heard it said by some officials that the Saints bring more economic help than the Greenbrier Classic (a PGA Tour event), because (the Saints) are here a lot longer. So we actually see a better return than we do the Greenbrier Classic.
"The town, the area is obviously hurting financially. The businesses are closed, people don't have the money to spend because they were out of work for so long – some of them are still out of work. So, for the Saints to come in, it's great. Great diversion, it's great for the community, great in morale and economically."
The Saints appear to be perfect tonic for an ailing community that resiliently pushes forward.
"White Sulphur Springs was just about devastated by the flood," Haynes said. "We had damage that we would have never dreamt in White Sulphur Springs. We had houses that were moved off their foundation, some moved into other dwellings, some that were completely washed away and were down the stream. We had roadways that turned into rivers, so there was quite a bit of devastation – more than 130 houses that were destroyed. The devastation that we experienced was quite in depth."
Said Neff: "The community was absolutely devastated. The water came up to flood stage in between five and 10 minutes. The main creek, I crossed to go get my wife to bring her back downtown – when I crossed it, the bridge was cross-able and when I came back in 10 minutes, it was closed. The water was up over it and there were buildings floating down the creek. That's how fast it came."
Assistance in the recovery, too, has come quickly and from others who are familiar with the process. Included among that contingent is Tommy Rambin, a FEMA official whose official title is operations-division supervisor with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He's a New Orleanian who currently resides in Mandeville.
Rambin, a Saints season ticket holder, has been with Homeland Security since 2005, working with communities that have been struck by natural disasters, including New Orleans.
"It's pretty devastating, as we know in New Orleans," he said. "It's a pleasure being where we can be of assistance; we had a lot of help in New Orleans.
"The similarities (to New Orleans) are, quick and total devastation. The flooding came quickly off the mountains. You just literally had walls of water coming down. It was very difficult for people to get out.
"Our role is to come in and assist the state at their request and support them in every way that we can, whether it be individual assistance or public assistance."
But, as was the case in New Orleans, aid also has come to Greenbrier County in the form of people who simply want to help.
"The love and the generosity that came from everywhere was unreal," Ratliff said. "People were here from Covington (Va., about 20 miles northeast), Clifton (Va., about 230 miles northeast), other states like Kentucky, were just showing up.
"You'd go into a house and you're like, 'Where are you from?' and they were like, 'Kentucky.' They were here just to help people clean their houses out."
"People have been absolutely wonderful," Neff said. "There have been people from all over the East Coast, even some folks from out West, a lot of church groups, FEMA and the Red Cross have been here – they have been phenomenal to come in and help, and the donations have just been mind-boggling.
"This is the first time I've ever been in a major disaster like this. You always see (acts of kindness) on TV and you think, 'Well, that's nice.' But to be affected by it personally, it's just been phenomenal."
For now, the rebuild continues, with the Saints being a critical element to it during their time at training camp.
"Some of the infrastructure has been opened up, and we had some areas that had almost complete devastation of the road – half or more of the highway was gone," Haynes said. "We've got bridges that have to be worked on. A lot of the devastation has been worked on but we've got a long way to go.
"Our whole downtown was flooded, so that affected a lot of the businesses there. Most of them are re-opening, we have some that are open already. Some, I'm not sure if they will open up again or not but we're trying to help them out so that they can reopen. The spirit of the citizens of White Sulphur Springs, though we had a lot of devastation, the spirit of the people is high."