ELKHART — Larry Sims lives in Elkhart.

This is where he grew up. He worked in the recreational vehicle industry here.

But he returns to Rainelle, W. Va., each year, a place where his dad grew up and where family still lives. And the small town of about 1,500 remains near and dear to him.

"We baled hay. We played on the farm," he said, recalling his visits as a child.

Upon witnessing the devastation brought by a flood in late June while making his annual visit there last month, he knew he had to do something.

"This is home to me. Rainelle has been a wonderful, wonderful town," he said.

Sims got to work calling businesses, nonprofit agencies and more around Elkhart County, seeking donations of building supplies. On Friday, he said he'd collected a semi-trailer load of material, including drywall, plywood, toilets, tools, sinks, caulk and more.

He planned to deliver it to Rainelle on Saturday.

The delivery – perhaps enough to build or rebuild 10 to 15 homes – may be only a fraction of what the town needs. Much of West Virginia, in fact, suffered devastating flooding as part of the same system of torrential rain that wreaked havoc on Rainelle.

But Rainelle Mayor Andy Pendleton, who called the June 23 incident a "thousand-year flood," said every little bit helps. Much of the town's business district suffered heavy damage along with most of the homes in the town, she said. Five people died. 

"It's just amazing, the people who have a heart," Pendleton said by phone from Rainelle. 

She's been in contact with Sims and his sister, Anna Merklein, who also aided in the drive, and she called them and others who have helped "warriors."


Many larger organizations are helping in Rainelle — churches that are part of national networks, for instance, and Appalachia Service Project, which helps repair homes for low-income families, according to Pendleton. Still, Sims wanted to do what he could, especially seeing how upbeat Rainelle residents remained in the wake of the disaster.

"They had the same smile on their faces that they did before the flood," he said. "It was the most uplifting thing I've ever seen."

On returning to Elkhart after his visit, he pulled out his phone and called company after company – construction companies, suppliers and more across northern Indiana and Michigan. For every 10 calls, maybe one would yield results. Maybe none.

"I've never been part of humanitarian aid or mission-type work," he said.

Sims suffers from a congenital heart condition that has hampered his ability to work and he's seeking Social Security Disability Insurance. But he kept at it.

"These people need help," Sims said.

And Pendleton said that sort of aid, along with the considerable efforts of Rainelle residents themselves, will help the town move forward.

"We hope this will be a new beginning for the town of Rainelle," Pendleton said. "This is a town built to carry on."

Follow reporter Tim Vandenack on Twitter at @timvandenack

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