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State Homeland Security director's home destroyed by derecho lightning

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Jimmy Gianato, director of West Virginia's Department of Homeland Security, has seen some of the worst devastation caused by last week's severe thunderstorms.

He's been to nearly all of the state's storm ravaged counties in a week's time, offering help to thousands of people without electricity or a means to keep food during an unseasonably hot summer.

And he continues to work by hopping around to counties that need him. He's been so busy he hasn't even stopped to take care of the devastation the derecho left for him at home.

A bolt of lightning struck Gianato's home in Kimball when the storm hit unexpectedly Friday night, destroying everything inside.

The McDowell County home sits completely destroyed from the inside out, but Gianato said he'll tend to it eventually. In the meantime his state needs him more.

"I've been on the road constantly since this started," Gianato said Thursday.

The lightning struck a transformer near the home and sent a surge that fried the electronics. He said luckily he and his wife, Markella, weren't there when it happened.

Gianato was working in Charleston assessing storm damage and Markella was at a friend's house. She went to check on the home later that night when the storm settled to find it smoking from the inside out.

She called the Kimball Volunteer Fire Department where their son, Adam, works.

This isn't the first time the Gianato family has been the victims of inclement weather.

In 2002, a year before Gianato was named the director of Homeland Security, a deadly flood swept through McDowell County and southern West Virginia.

Floodwaters inundated his family's business, West Virginia Grocery, in Kimball. Six feet of water covered the county's 911 center, where he had worked as EMS director.

He was quoted at the time as saying the natural disaster helped him prepare for his transition to Homeland Security director.

"I know personally what it is like to be flooded and devastated," he said.

That's a statement he's carried over to the most recent natural disaster.

West Virginia National Guard Maj. Gen. James A. Hoyer said Gianato is the most dedicated person in the state's storm recovery effort.

"There's no one working as hard as Jimmy," Hoyer said last week.

Gianato was in Greenbrier County on Thursday, where more than 40,000 people were without electric at the time. Food and water still remain the first priority for residents across the state as the power comes back on.

"The need is still there," he said. "We continue to push out numerous tractor-trailers of water and about 100,000 meals a day."

Early Saturday afternoon, about 122,000 people were without power across the state as emergency official warned of temperatures reaching 100 degrees. At the peak of the storm's aftermath, more than half a million people were in the dark.

The biggest challenge the state faces in the coming month is cleaning up storm debris, he said.

"A lot of people are asking about FEMA assistance, but that just depends on the total amount of damage we received," he said.

Representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will begin touring the state on Monday. They will then assess the state's damage and report it back to Washington, he said.

From there West Virginia can shift from disaster response to disaster recovery.

"We ask people for their continued patience as we get out quantities and supplies," he said. "If they need anything, call local emergency services and we will do the best to help them. That's what we are here for."

Gianato said insurance will cover the house's damage and Markella has been staying at a temporary home while he's on the road. He has plans to visit more storm-damaged counties in the coming weeks.

Reach Travis Crum at travis.crum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.


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