Blackstone mayor, Nottoway residents speak out: ‘why has rural Virginia been abandoned?’

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NOTTOWAY COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — Thousands still remain without power in central Virginia, including roughly 850 customers in Nottoway county. Several more are in the dark among Lunenburg, Amelia, Brunswick, Prince Edward, Charlotte and Dinwiddie counties.

The mayor of Blackstone is speaking out about the thousands in need, saying the state isn’t doing enough to help.

“Many of them are hanging on for dear life,” said Mayor Billy Coleburn. “There are elderly people right now, as we speak, that are out of money to fuel the generator and they’re at the mercy of the clock.”

Coleburn said he’s advocating for people in Nottoway county like Rosie Perez. She’s been without power for 11 days.

“We have spent 40 dollars a day for eleven days just to stay warm,” Perez said.

Perez is a Southside Electric Cooperative member with serious health conditions. Southside Electric has recently come under fire as tens of thousands remained without power more than a week after the storm.

“Why have we been abandoned? Why has rural Virginia been abandoned?” Perez asked.

The town of Blackstone runs its own electric operations. Coleburn said a vast majority in the town had power restored within a few days. Now, he worries for the rest of his Nottoway county neighbors— and about the future. He said clean up will take months.

“What we’d like to hear is some state officials talk about federal disaster declarations and request for federal disaster aid,” Coleburn said. “We have not even heard that conversation.”

“Here in southside Virginia there are thousands going through the worst natural disaster of their lives and no one is acknowledging it,” the mayor told 8News.

However, in response, a spokesperson with Governor Ralph Northam’s office said there’s been “extensive communication” between the Virginia Department of Emergency Management officials and elected leaders in this region of the state regarding federal disaster aid.

The director of VDEM, Curtis Brown, just spent two days with local officials in that region, the spokesperson said.

The process to get federal help after disasters is not an easy or quick one. VDEM said they’re assessing the damage among localities and any federal financial help for localities themselves would come later, which is how the process typically works.

For more immediate help if states qualify, governors can also ask FEMA to come in and help those in dire need right away — such as the kind that recently arrived in Texas.

However, VDEM said Virginia doesn’t qualify for that type of immediate help.

“To date, there are no significant reports of residential and or commercial damage in Virginia as a result of the ice storms. These events have not met the qualifications for the IA (Individual Assistance) program,” a VDEM spokesperson told 8News by email. “Virginia was able to meet the needs of the disaster without having to directly task FEMA with a mission request.”

According to the state agency, Texas got a “Major Declaration” because they have met the qualification for the Individual Assistance Programs, which VDEM outlined:

  • Individual assistance is based on primary residences that have received major damage or are destroyed and that are uninsured 
  • Texas requested and was approved for direct federal assistance to fulfill missions requests that the state did not have the capacity to fulfill
  • The national average for individual assistance payouts is $4,000 per household

“I understand Texas is an easy comparison, but the situation and processes in that matter are very different,” a spokesperson for the Governor told 8News.

However, VDEM said they are “pursuing a major disaster” to provide reimbursement to localities for costs like debris removal, sheltering costs, power restoration for electrical cooperatives, facility and uninsured facility and equipment damage.

According to VDEM, FEMA allows for 30 days following the incident to request assistance, and VDEM is requesting an extension to FEMA based on the ongoing emergency protective measures and additional time needed to assess the damage.

“If approved, FEMA provides reimbursement of 75% of eligible expenditures. We have notified FEMA of our intent to make the request,” the spokesperson said.

To help people in need immediately, the community has held several food distribution events in Blackstone since the storm. They usually take place at the volunteer fire department. However, there’s now a COVID-19 outbreak among at least five volunteer firefighters and possibly more.

Instead, the meal distribution event was held at the Mercy Outreach Fellowship on Tuesday from 4 to 6 p.m.

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