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Flooded Staunton Businesses Gain Strength From Community

Wavley Groves

Private property owners in Staunton learned last week that they would not get federal disaster aid for the estimated $3 million in damage caused by floods in early August.  But friends and neighbors are stepping up.  And the trauma caused by losing a business, something all too common for entrepreneurs during this pandemic, can lead to an opportunity for personal growth.  WMRA's Jason Barr reports.

[sound of rushing water…]

It’s Saturday night, August 8th, and Emma Kirby and Caleb Dodson, both employees at Laughing Bird Pho in Staunton, watch as flash floods tear through downtown. In the sound from this video they took, you can hear their worried reaction.

AUDIO OF WATER RUSHING [Caleb Dodson]: That’s crazy!  That’s horrifying!

Credit Wavley Groves
Wavley Groves (here with son Franklin) is the owner of EccoHollow Art Sound in downtown Staunton.

WAVLEY GROVES: That had been the most stressful part, is: how am I going to make everything right for everything that was damaged?

Wavley Groves owns EccoHollow Art and Sound, an audio equipment repair shop that specializes in vintage pieces – much of which was damaged or ruined by the floods. When the flood hit, it wasn’t just damage to his building that worried him, but damage to dozens of pieces of equipment owned by his customers.

GROVES: And we just ran and started trying to save as much as we could: binders of old concerts that I played and they were ruined.  And so that was heartbreaking for me.  But even more heartbreaking was the other people’s stuff that may not be able to be fixed.  I’m going to have to do something to figure out how to replace it.

Just a few blocks down the same street, Heidi Austin-Cook looked in on her store, Sole Focus Running.

Credit Heidi Austin-Cook
For Sole Focus Running, mud was the primary issue.

HEIDI AUSTIN-COOK: So when I got there, there's about a foot of water still in there and … yeah, it just … it was heartbreaking to see that.

Both Groves and Austin-Cook had experienced a traumatic incident in their lives, and in this era of pandemic and sudden business closures, post-traumatic stress is affecting more and more entrepreneurs. These losses become personal.

AUSTIN-COOK: The last four years. It's been my life. It's been it's like I have a four year old.

Credit James Madison University
Dr. Lennis Echterling, a psychology professor at JMU, has studied post-traumatic growth.

LENNIS ECHTERLING: Losing a business is like a death in the family.

Dr. Lennis Echterling is a licensed clinical psychologist and professor at James Madison University.  He’s researched the concept of post-traumatic growth.  He says business owners can grow from their traumatic experiences.

ECHTERLING: Losing a business or a farm or anything that's been around for a long time is very traumatic and can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. It's also something that can lead to post-traumatic growth, or PTG.  Virtually every business goes through failures, disappointments. And yet somehow, some way, they were able not only to bounce back, but to even find meaning and thriving in their lives.

For Austin-Cook and for Groves, it was indeed the community that helped them rebound.  The Staunton Creative Community Fund launched a fundraiser through GoFundMe, and Staunton residents stepped up with a series of individual efforts, too.

Credit Heidi Austin-Cook
Heidi Austin-Cook is the owner of Sole Focus Running in downtown Staunton.

AUSTIN-COOK: Somebody donated some flooring for us to put down.

GROVES: My drummer Steve West was in there dry walling.

AUSTIN-COOK: At one point a fellow handed my son a one hundred dollar bill and said here, give this to your mom. And then he just disappeared.

Dr. Echterling notes that it can often be the community itself that puts the business owner on the path to post-traumatic growth.

ECHTERLING: A broken heart, I like to think is also an open heart. Part of our ability to be resilient is to accept the fact that we are interdependent, that there are others around us who we can reach out to. And oftentimes that's the most difficult challenge for individuals who have taken pride in being independent and being entrepreneurs and creating this business, whatever it might be, to accept help from others may be a big challenge.

Credit Heidi Austin-Cook
Sole Focus Running dries out multiple pairs of shoes that were damaged in the flood.

GROVES: Everybody was wonderful and it really helped keep a positive outlook when everybody is so helpful. I have people dropping in: “How can I help today?”. I think I've got the greatest community. I had every musician in Staunton that had the day off.  And I was feeling a little unloved during this. And they all showed up.

AUSTIN-COOK: have to make this work, look at all these people. They're here to help me make it work. Just a huge thank you to the whole community. I mean, this whole experience has pretty much blown me away.

And, for Austin-Cook, this experience has changed her outlook a little.

AUSTIN-COOK: Using those opportunities to be positive in other people's lives, I now realize the value in it more so than before.

Jason Barr is a long-time resident of the Valley. His academic work has appeared in The Explicator, African American Review, and The Journal of Carribean Literatures. His first book, The Kaiju Film, was released in 2016 by McFarland Press. He is currently a composition and literature teacher at Blue Ridge Community College.