Eastern Kentucky floods: Stepping up to help friends in need

by David C Dixon

Imagine being over a hundred miles from home and wake up to your watch buzzing flood warning. That was my experience last Thursday morning. Living near the Poor Fork of the Cumberland River, this isn’t unusual after heavy rains. Thankfully, Cumberland did not experience any major flooding or damage this go around, but our friends and family in surrounding counties did. Several agencies across the Commonwealth and beyond have stepped up to help including Cumberland and its residents. Scrolling through social media, there are posts from people all over offering their services and support. 

In this time of need, folks aren’t asking political party, religious affiliation, or sexual identity, they are asking the only question that should be asked, “how can we help?”

A Facebook post from Assistant Whitesburg Police Chief Justin Hunsucker went viral asking for assistance with police vehicles after several departments lost numerous vehicles to flood damage. Departments not only from Kentucky but from other states have stepped up to not only provide vehicles, but to provide manpower so officers could rest and attend to their families and their own damages.

Scott Edwards, Mayor of Hurricane, WV said, “After hearing about the devastating floods that affected our friends in Eastern Kentucky, I made contact with the Whitesburg Police Department to find out what was needed and what we could do to help. I was told about the loss of police cruisers in the city and Letcher County, so I called my Police Chief and we decided to donate one of our spare cars.” 

The Office of Emergency Management from Hurricane, WV stepped up to send the Mobile Infrastructure Response Team. Edwards noted, “this team is currently working on water lines, water plant, sewer lines, clearing roads and other needed tasks.” 

Edwards remarked, “We are blessed here in Hurricane, WV and are thankful we are able to help others. We continue to think of our friends in Eastern Kentucky and look forward to a full recovery in the future.”

A town ravaged by a tornado in the late 90s hasn’t forgotten that folks came to their aid and they want to pay it forward. Mount Washington, Kentucky is providing personnel relief and cruisers to the area. Police Chief Tim Morris said, “our community was devastated by a tornado in the late 90’s and so many people reached out to help us. The Mayor and city leaders were involved back then and have not forgotten. We all must reach out to help one another in a time of need and that’s all we’re doin!” Morris added, “Mayor, Barry Armstrong, is the deciding factor that allows me to do what I do. We all work together so well and no one person looks for any credit. This isn’t about that for us. Purely about helping others in need.”

In nearby Harlan County, local educator Gina Stewart and some of her friends and colleagues quickly got to work to organize an online auction to provide donations to the relief efforts in Letcher County. Several local businesses and entrepreneurs have donated their services or items to the cause. Stewart said, “We are doing the auction to help those in Letcher County that so desperately need our help. We are all one tragic event away from being in the same shape. I hope if the roles were reversed, Letcher County would do the same for us.”

Former Secretary of State, Allison Lundgren Grimes visited the area to provide assistance and donations. Grimes said, “You don’t have to have a title behind your name to make a difference.It’s in these darkest of times that we the brightest of stars.  Indeed, right now it’s ordinary folks that are doing extraordinary things. I hope to lead by example and encourage others to do the same.  Our fellow Kentuckians are hurting and we, collectively, can help heal.”

State Representative Cherlynn Stevenson, a Knott County native knew she had to “come home” and help. “It was a no brainer,” she commented. She organized relief efforts through Toy Chest, a nonprofit board she sits on along with efforts of AFT120 and private donations. Her group traveled with a Uhaul full of supplies along with some coloring books and crayons to occupy the kiddos. Stevenson remarked, “We need to pull together and work together, the spirit of unity is strong across the commonwealth.”

Traveling to Eastern Kentucky was Jenn Ward. While driving through Breathitt County, we saw two heifers and a big bull on the side of the road. We pulled over, realizing they were out, to see if we could get them back in. Going into action, the group of ladies was able to get the cattle back into their field and use an old gate that had been washed up to stretch out and connect it to some barbed wire to keep the cattle off the highway. About the time we were finished, the jailer and the animal control officer pulled up behind us. They looked a little concerned, so I immediately raised my hand and yelled, “It’s ok, she’s a farmer, and we’re teachers, and she’s a representative, we’re just trying to help!” And we all laughed. It was said that the man who owned the cattle had lost everything in the flood. 

Ward reflected on her day, “The people we met and saw today had an undeniable spirit of survival and strength that you could just feel welling.” “Flood ravaged Eastern Kentucky will need a lot of help, but I have no doubt they will build back better, because that’s just who they are.”

Kelly Green has offered to come and help folks clear their driveways and roads. When asked why, he replied, “That’s an easy one. I grew up in Jenkins and even though I don’t live there any longer I still love my hometown people. I grew up with them. They’re my family. There was no chance that I was not going to help. So in the end these mountains will always be home and I’ll always come back to help.”

Eastern Kentucky will overcome and recover from this tragedy with a little help from friends near and far. Mountain people are resilient and strong.