Rose Hart is worried about catching Covid-19.
But when a flood hit Ohio County in the northern part of the state a couple weeks ago, the retired West Virginia United States Post Service mail carrier got in her Ford pick-up truck and drove to help her neighbors. Wearing a mask, she joined the Red Cross and Community Lutheran Partners to deliver mops, brooms, buckets and cleaning supplies to people whose homes and yards had been ravaged by the overflowing Middle Wheeling Creek and other Ohio River tributaries.
“Emergencies trump self-concern,” Hart texted me. “No help was available for these families. We wore our masks and kept our distance. So sad the older people had no help with restoring their yards. Truly this was neighbor helping neighbor where possible.”
Hart and Moundsville have been hustling since the 1980s when factories started closing like they had caught a viral disease. Along with millions of people in hundreds of other American towns rocked by globalization and a changing economy, residents faced the soul-crushing shock of losing good jobs they had counted on since birth.
What the world is going through economically, with tens of millions of people losing blue and white-collar jobs because of the economic shutdown, people in Rust Belt factory towns have suffered for 40 years. Fear. Anxiety. Boredom. Depression. The Hustle. None of these things are new to Moundsville.
In 2001, Hart, who lives off her USPS pension, started Appalachian Outreach, a charity devoted to helping people in West Virginia during floods and other emergencies. I love her story, which we included in our movie, because it’s one of people who are struggling helping people who are struggling.
“The way the economy is now, I think you have to be more creative and think outside the box,” Hart says in the movie, predicting the call of a planet coping with changes wrought by what my friend, writer Neil King, calls The Great Pause. “You have to look for your opportunities,” Hart continues in the film “You have to build networks, and try to connect with other people so you all find a good solution. If you’re out there on your own, and you don’t want to put out the energy and effort, you’re gonna suffer.”
In Moundsville, which once boasted world-class factories making toys, glass and chemicals, almost 10,000 good jobs were lost after 1980, shrinking the town’s population in half, to 7,500 from 15,000. A lot of people left. Those who decided to stay, in the only home they had know, had to adapt, to be entrepreneurial and learn to live with less. Fred Wilkerson, for example, started a home glassmaking business after getting laid off from the glass factory.
And now another shock; the coronavirus and the lockdown. They are not sparing towns like Moundsville. The area has reported a few dozens cases.
Appalachian Outreach canceled its spring $12,000 fundraiser, and is losing $9,000 a month, said Hart. (You can contact Rose and/or donate to Appalachian Outreach here.)
Just like everywhere else, businesses are dying. Restaurants have laid off staff and are surviving on takeout orders.
“The schools are delivering meals once a week,” Hart texted me. “I hope all the kids are getting them. With addictions in the area, some kids have to be parents and they don’t drive to meet the food bus.” She added: “The lack of connectivity is a large problem here and around the state. Even though teachers make a packet of homework for the kids, some may not be getting it.”
But if there’s anything Moundsville has learned these last 40 years, if there is any graced reward for enduring so much social and economic pain, it’s resiliency. “You have to believe that things will turn out for the better,” town historian Gary Rider told me when I called him last week. “You keep looking for jobs. You do odd jobs. You don’t give up.”
John W. Miller