By Anne Kerka
Principal Scottie Billiter became emotional as he described the devastation caused by the North Fork Kentucky River flooding in late July. After a record-breaking rainfall, water reached the 21-foot flood mark—a record that became a once-in-a-century catastrophic event. The National Guard deployed Kentucky medevac crews and troops and Black Hawk helicopters from Tennessee and West Virginia to rescue victims from rivers, rooftops and trees. Due to the severe, overnight flash flooding, 43 people lost their lives.
Situated on a mountainside, Letcher County Central High School first became a shelter for the more than 40 families—some without shoes and covered in mud—who came with what they could carry to seek refuge from the flooding. Next, the high school transformed into a distribution center—a place to receive and dispense food, clothing, diapers and other necessities. Volunteers arrived to organize deliveries and supplies, and nonprofits like Mercy Chefs, a faith-based disaster relief organization, prepared nutritious meals in the high school kitchen for victims, volunteers and first responders.
Sue Gulley and I drove up the winding driveway past the football stadium to the high school entrance on August 22nd—about a month after the flood—to deliver school supplies donated by the Bay United Methodist Church (BUMC) congregation and the Appalachia Service Project (ASP) Team. The Mercy Chefs were still handing out healthy boxed meals, but the distribution center had moved elsewhere so the staff could prepare for the delayed opening of school. A grateful Billiter and Assistant Principal Jennifer Wampler welcomed us and shared stories of devastation and hope as we unloaded boxes of crayons and notebooks and carried them into the building.
Wampler told us about a dedicated high school employee who died in the flood. The employee had never missed a day of work. Her husband was driving her to school when the floodwaters swept them away.
Billiter shared the story of an 83-year-old woman who, stranded on the second floor of her home, survived for seven hours by standing on a table and breathing the 18 inches of air between the rising water and the ceiling. (Earlier in the evening, a rescue team cut a hole in her roof but did not find her until a second attempt hours later, when waters began to recede.)
Billiter and Wampler shared their deep concern for all the displaced families—some living in carports—whose homes were the 1,250 left uninhabitable. They also talked about the elementary schools and the 28 school buses destroyed by the water, and how helpless they felt because they were out of town at a work conference in Louisville the day of the flood. They said that, after the flood, some folks suffered anxiety attacks whenever it rained.
To try and offer a bright spot in the darkness, Billiter made the decision to allow the high school football team to go ahead and play the first game of the season the Friday before we arrived. People gathered at the stadium like normal times, and the Letcher County Cougars beat the Shelby Valley Wildcats, 52-48.
We talked about the future and what else we could do to help. Billiter asked our congregation to keep the people of Letcher County in their prayers. He said that, throughout the tragedy, their community gained hope and was able to move forward because of the outpouring of support from people across the region and the country—it was the one thing keeping them going.
School started in Letcher County on September 21st. Demolished by the flood, West Whitesburg Elementary will be housed in the high school this year. Children will have access to supplies donated by their friends from BUMC and the ASP Team. Thank you for your donations—your generosity sent a caring message to families and faculty in Whitesburg, Kentucky.
Below: In mid-September, the more than 1,250 homes that were destroyed after overnight flash flooding rose to record levels in Whitesburg, KY, in July were still uninhabitable. Photos below by Anne Kerka and Scottie Billiter.