Kentucky pastor documents community’s deep loss and resiliency following major floods

PC(USA) minister at large Janice Stamper shares an account of the devastation following a major flood in July. She encounters death, loss, destruction, and glimpses of God’s presence too.

A Kentucky National Guard Soldiers and Airmen assisted rescue efforts while supporting the flood response to a declared state of emergency in eastern Kentucky late July 2022. (Courtesy Footage)

August 21, 2022

Today I traveled down Bowling’s Creek to the place where my friend washed away. To get there, I drove about 15-20 miles on small country roads ravaged by the flood. The farther down the creek we went, the worse the damage was to every home. I noticed one house where the water washed through the bricks and came out on the other side.

I followed my friend’s family as they went to salvage things. I had seen photos of their trailer, but nothing prepared me for what I saw with my own eyes. The land where his tiny house sat is gone. The raging waters cut it away. The flood moved his family’s trailer sideways and nearly washed it away. The creek went from being 6-8 feet wide to cutting out a path that I’m sure is over 50+ feet wide. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Before leaving the area, I drove past the Altro Church of God, which was demolished. It looked like people were taking everything down to the studs.

I went down the road to just sit with his family afterward. They had walked in the creek and found one of his blankets. They were washing the mud out of it. They told me where they found his body on his mattress. When I thought I couldn’t feel any more pain, I discovered my heart broke all over again for the final moments of my friend’s life, and for all the loss.

The earth is gone. People cannot rebuild. The force of the raging flash flood removed the earth and filled the creek with boulders and trees. It cut into the edges of the hills and any ground in its path forging new paths and ripping apart everything in its way.

I have mostly traveled just around Breathitt County witnessing the complete destruction. Places in many other counties were hit just as hard. And there’s mud everywhere. My car was covered with dust from repairs to the road where the mud has dried. I tried to rinse it off when I got home.

I sat around a table that had been salvaged with others under a carport. We gathered as one though from many different places. We watched others work hard to salvage things and clean. I felt, in a way, that we sat at the Lord’s Table. Where two or more are gathered, the Lord is there (Matthew 18:20). I held in my heart that those who live, live unto the Lord, and those who died in the flood, died unto the Lord. Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.

August 23, 2022

Kentucky Transportation Cabinet

I heard this morning about flooding in Texas and Arizona. The one in Arizona was being called a 1-in-1,000-year flood — that’s what they said about the catastrophic flooding in Kentucky. Climate change and global warming have changed the flooding around the world. It is beyond what anyone can imagine when it rains so hard within such a short amount of time, and the destruction is unimaginable.

Praying is still the most important thing we can do for one another. Giving of our money, possessions, and time is also valuable and necessary. It’s a long journey for so many and I will just keep helping as much as I can.

August 25, 2022

Four weeks seems like a lifetime and a nightmare where there is no end. Everywhere I drive I see others’ cherished items strewn along creek beds and highways and fields. The depth of the loss for so many is ever-present.

The stress of it all is showing in so many faces. Where things can be repaired, the cost of pieces and supplies to repair things is outrageous. So many are weary of multiple denials by FEMA, though the governor has been working hard to make the broken system work better for folks.

Many are living in tents, and school starts Monday for children in Breathitt County. There aren’t hotels and motels in our county, and many do not want to move far away from the places they call home even if their physical homes are gone. Some are still living without electricity, and many have no phone or internet services while most of the available resources assume everyone has access to such. Some have water restored. However, most are on a boil water advisory.

Let us be kind to one another. Let us treat others as we want to be treated. Let us bear one another’s burdens and forgive one another. Above all, let us love one another because faith, hope and love remain, and the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13).

August 26, 2022

What would you do if you lost everything but the shirt on your back? What if you weren’t even wearing a shirt as you jumped in rising water while your house was floating away? I keep thinking of the trauma my friend’s husband and so many others went through with the flood.

As the shock wears off a little, tensions rise again with the prediction of rain. So many are traumatized from the flood that any mention of rain brings it all back. The emotional and spiritual toil cuts through souls. Many are dealing with the anxiety of not feeling safe anymore.

I see resilience at the same time. I am in awe of the farmers who can take their tractors and machines completely apart to fix them. Their ingenuity and resourcefulness are amazing to watch. I also see the women who tackle each task that lies in front of them, bringing hope each day to their families.

Yes, it’s going to take a long time to recover, maybe even years. Yet we do what we can each day. We are grateful for all from outside the area who have helped and who continue to help. It matters when I show up saying others are thinking of people and praying for them. We are being the presence of God with skin on when we show up for one another, even when we can’t take away the pain.

Since the flood, I take my coffee in a thermos down to a neighbor’s house and drink it. I don’t want to be alone, and I want to check in with them. I sit for a while just chatting. It helps me deal with the day, and I hope it helps them.

August 28, 2022

School is starting tomorrow in Breathitt County. Buses cannot go up any of the hollers to pick up children, which means parents will have to bring them out to where they can catch the bus. That means families will have to get ready even earlier for the school day.

There are many children and families who are homeless from the flood, and no one is sure how that is going to work. Some teachers and administrators lost their homes in the flood, too, so they are having to focus on teaching and running schools while managing their home lives. Please pray for all.

This flood affected two and three generations of families. In many areas, families lived close together and all their homes are gone. While people having tough times usually turn to family for help, there are families where all the generations lost everything they owned, including their land.

Many churches in these communities were ruined. While a few are trying to rebuild, some are beyond repair. Some have decided to close their churches. So many people turn to their churches for comfort during such times, and yet these are gone, too.

A victory today was that a young friend, who was crying the other day because he thought he had lost his minnow basket when he put it in the muddy creek, found it, and it was full of minnows for his tiny snapping turtle. When I saw him the other day, he was crying, and when I saw him today, he was smiling. Such moments are cherished and tucked away in my heart.

Tonight, I’m holding all who are displaced in my heart and prayers. I just can’t even imagine. Everyone is thinking that winter is coming and asking what folks will do. What I know tonight is God is holding all of us as we ponder all the unknowns. So, I give thanks for this night where lightning bugs are swirling and stars are appearing reminding all of us God is here.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has processed grants and deployed National Response Team members to affected areas. In Eastern Kentucky, we anticipate this being a long-term response, with information on volunteer hosting to come.

Until the long-term recovery phase is reached, you can do the following:

  • Donate to DR000191
  • Make Gifts of the Heart Kits
  • Volunteer:
    • Martin, KY Hwy 80 at the stoplight across from the Sav-A-Lot, look for the Christian Appalachian Project sign, Floyd County. Christian Appalachian Project has a volunteer reception center at this site where overnight volunteers will stay and eat. Volunteer duties range from working on affected homes to assisting in a donation center. Volunteer opportunities for groups Monday – Saturday, please arrive by 7:30 AM if you plan to work on affected homes that day. Please note this site is only accepting groups traveling together, not spontaneous volunteers. More information can be obtained at 800.755.5322,
  • Pray: In times of upheaval, trauma, and grief, prayer centers our hearts on how God is at work in the midst of disaster. Pray for those affected by flooding, organizations such as PDA who are working to mobilize aid in the area, those in the surrounding areas who have extended compassion, for those grieving the loss of loved ones in the flooding, that God’s love might be shown and God’s comfort known.