‘Neighbors, heroes and leaders’ step up after last summer’s record flooding

East Kentucky Leadership Conference spotlights some

By: - May 1, 2023 5:40 am

Laura Humphrey walks a wheelbarrow to a pile of debris while volunteering to clean up in Perry County near Hazard on August 6, 2022. Thousands of Eastern Kentucky residents lost their homes ater devastating rain storms flooded the area. (Photo by Michael Swensen/Getty Images)

HAZARD — How does one of the nation’s poorest rural regions recover from the most disastrous flooding some of its communities have ever seen?

Peter Hille

“Neighbors, heroes and leaders.”

That answer was the three-legged theme sounded repeatedly by Peter Hille, chair of the East Kentucky Leadership Foundation, at its annual conference in Hazard Thursday and Friday — exactly nine months after the flash floods left many in Southeastern Kentucky wondering about their region’s future.

The 35th annual East Kentucky Leadership Conference made clear that the disaster had created a greater sense of community among neighbors, some of whom responded by becoming heroes and leaders. Several were spotlighted in the annual East Kentucky Leadership Awards:

  • Kate Clemons of Hazard, who didn’t know anyone in Knott County but organized free-food distribution there immediately after the flood and is still running a food center in Hindman;
  • Whitesburg firefighter Charles “Red” Colwell, who can’t swim but rescued 14 people from deep, rushing floodwaters and is now chief of the department in the Letcher County seat;
  • Nathan Day of Knott County, who rescued nine people and told Hazard’s WYMT, “I just feel like if everyone would open their doors and open their hearts, this world would be a better place.”
  • Gwen Johnson of the Hemphill Community Center in Letcher County, a distribution site for supplies and place of refuge and healing space where people could gather to feel a sense of community;
  • Donna Campbell and the Lost Creek Fire Department in Perry County, which rescued people and served as a distribution center for supplies, and is organizing rebuilding of homes;
  • The Rousseau Volunteer Fire Department in Breathitt County, which rescued 15 people, including 12 in an attic, and has helped more than 4,000 families;
  • Scott McReynolds and the Housing Development Alliance, which helped preserve 41 homes, repaired 31 and placed six families in new homes, and has applicaitons for 120 more.
  • Gerry Roll and the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, which has raised more than $7.4 million for flood relief and has written more than 8,000 checks.
Scott McReynolds

For each plaque handed out Thursday night, 10 to 20 more people or organizations deserve the same recognition, McReynolds told the crowd at Hazard Community and Technical College.

Roll, CEO of the foundation, said in accepting its award, “We’re here for you. We are you, you are us. That’s what community is.”

The foundation and other philanthropies made major differences in the recovery, said Lynn Knight, an economic development consultant in Washington and New Orleans who has done much post-disaster work and attended the conference.

Knight also told the Institute for Rural Journalism that the region is fortunate to have several community development finance institutions, such as Hille’s Mountain Associationand the Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp., which can play a role in financing the recovery. The combination of CDFIs and philanthropy make the region unique, she said.

The disaster has helped some local governments and officials overcome political and geographic rivalries that have often impeded progress in the region.

This sign welcomed attendees to the conference.

“The biggest success we’ve had is tearing down the walls” between local governments, said Perry County Judge-Executive Scott Alexander, quoting Hazard Mayor Donald “Happy” Mobelini as saying that “If something’s good for the city, it’s good for the county, and if something’s good for the county, it’s good for the city.”

Alexander said Friday morning that should also apply to competition between counties for jobs. “There’s nothing wrong with somebody living in Perry County and working in Knott County,” he said. “So let’s look at Appalachia as a whole. Let’s tear those barriers down.”

Much of the conference was devoted to the experiences, opinions and hopes of high-school students in the region, which will be the topic of future reports from the Institute for Rural Journalism.

The reporting is being done by Ivy Brashear in her role as the Institute’s first David Hawpe Fellow in Appalachian Reporting, named for the late Louisville Courier Journal editor who was born in Pike County and was the newspaper’s East Kentucky Bureau chief in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The fellowship is for students at the University of Kentucky, Hawpe’s alma mater. Brashear, a native of Perry County, is a Ph.D. student in the UK College of Communication and Information. If you have story ideas for her, you may email her here.

This story is republished from The Rural Blog, published by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky.

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Al Cross
Al Cross

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010.