August 15, 2022
As Mennonite Disaster Service volunteers hit the ground in eastern Kentucky, “we need to be here”
The first Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) Early Response Teams will arrive in eastern Kentucky on Aug. 15, ready to muck out homes and clear debris in flood-ravaged communities.
“It’s muddy, hard work—and it’s badly needed,” said Kevin King, MDS executive director.
The Appalachian communities received a foot of rain in less than 10 hours, resulting in floods that killed at least 37 people. “In these deeply impoverished nooks and crannies, hardly anyone has flood insurance,” said King. “And hardly anyone has a choice about where to go, other than back into the same deluged mobile home once it’s mucked out.
“We need to be here,” added King, who returned from an assessment trip on Aug. 10.
For King, assessing damage means weighing many numbers—inches of rain, numbers of homes affected, average incomes in the area—but it also means personally meeting flood survivors. In eastern Kentucky, these survivors are vulnerable by many measures, but overriding everything is what King describes as an “iron will” among people who have been coping with floods for decades.
This time it was the worst they’ve ever experienced.
Flood survivor Kayla is a mother of five who lives in Hindman, Kentucky. As she talked with a local pastor’s wife, she described how, when the floodwaters rose quickly, she and her children climbed on top of the roof of their mobile home.
“They sat under a tarp for six hours,” said King. “Kayla said she saw things she did not care to see – several dead bodies floating down the river.”
When the waters receded, Kayla realized they lost everything, including her car. Her husband, Randall, a self-employed woodworker, lost all his tools.
“People look at this as an area heavy-laden with poverty and vulnerability—an area that’s been beaten down so many times, but there’s also such a sense of resilience and an acknowledgement that people here are tough and strong.”
— Kevin King
MDS volunteers have already started mucking out Kayla and Randall’s home—and that’s only the beginning.
The record-breaking aspect of the flood is evident everywhere: the First Church of God in Neon, Kentucky, established in the area 85 years ago, has never been flooded. It was deluged with six feet of water.
Brenda, another resident, lost her husband two weeks before the flood, and her sister died two months ago. The house was inundated with two feet of water. Her home was one of many that was deluged, or twisted and turned off its foundation, or crumpled inside and out.
MDS volunteers are staying at the Hindman United Methodist Church, as well as at Camp Nathanael in Emmalena. Among other local partners, MDS is working with Mennonite Central Committee’s Sharing with Appalachian People (SWAP) program, which has provided housing and access to its tools and equipment.
Kristin Overstreet, program coordinator of SWAP, expressed how grateful she and the rest of the people in eastern Kentucky are that MDS volunteers have arrived.
“We appreciate how quickly MDS is responding,” she said.
After the relief phase of the flood disaster, MDS will move into its primary mission of helping flood survivors recover over the long term. In addition to repairing and rebuilding homes, King said he envisions MDS creating the spark for a response that brings people together to work at sustainable housing. “People look at this as an area heavy-laden with poverty and vulnerability—an area that’s been beaten down so many times,” he said. “But there’s also such a sense of resilience and an acknowledgement that people here are tough and strong.”
As soon as MDS volunteers muck out a house, many flood survivors will return to live in it—despite walls with bare 2x4s, no flooring, and no furniture. “Why? Because they have nowhere else to go,” said King, who added that for many people the trauma will last even longer than the physical damage. “It’s a harrowing existence—they’ve all got rain gauges in their heads.”