Matt’s Mission: Disaster-Relief after Flooding in KY

For Samaritan’s Purse disaster-relief volunteers who previously served, the call to action comes by email…

Each year, SP organizes dozens of months-long disaster recovery efforts, in addition to years-long rebuilds at select disaster sites. I don’t always get the itch to respond, but this time (August 2022) there was a pull and no good reason not to head to Kentucky.

Despite four previous trips, signing up this time was a step made in faith. Due to timing/illness/ obligations, relief teammates from Roser that I’d previously worked with weren’t able to get away, so I went without the comfort of familiar faces.

It was also my first long-distance trip in an electric car and I wasn’t sure exactly how charging on the road worked or how long it would take.

Charging stations like these are sprinkled along I-75 and provide a rapid (20 minutes to fill the battery 80%, or about 260 miles) and relatively cheap ($20 at most stops) way to traverse states. Most are located near shopping centers where you can eat/stretch/nap while charging. There were five charging stops on the 900-mile journey and I was ready for time out of the driver’s seat at each layover.

In the tiny town of Garrett, KY, we were stationed at two churches – this one for eating and staging supplies and another for sleeping, relaxing, and showering. Normally, everything happens at one location, but the pastor of Rock Fork Regular Baptist, Willie Crase, was handing out hot dogs to residents and volunteers when he came across a Samaritan’s Purse crew assessing damaged homes. One thing led to another and the SP crew was able to bring in more volunteers and vehicles using the extra real estate donated by his church.

Rock Fork Regular Baptist preachers stand in the middle of the congregation and preach with their backs to some attendees. Members get to see their faces while others have an alternate perspective. The walls display former church luminaries, providing a sense of history and tradition. Both churches were able to hold regular worship services despite the SP presence.

A command trailer brought in from headquarters in Boone, NC. Trailers like these provide tools, kitchens & freezers, showers, toilets, and communications for volunteers & SP staff.

Shower trailers. Scrubbing the grime off feels nice, but if you take too long, someone dirty may let you know.

Garrett is deep in Appalachia. There was fog most mornings and rain on several occasions. The hills are very steep and rocky. Despite thick vegetation, there’s only so much moisture the soil can hold, and rain runs off into the gullies. The 12”+ of rain Eastern Kentucky received overnight July 27-28 led to floods as high as 30 feet at the bottoms of the gullies where most people live. Yards are often steep enough that lawnmowing is done by weedwhacker because riding mowers tip. Thankfully there weren’t many mudslides, except on some mountainsides where trees had been cleared.

A misty morning.

On Monday, our first job was well back in a holler, adjacent to an elemntary school. A wall in the back collapsed so they plan to tear the school down and rebuild. A nearby bridge washed out, leaving our only ingress several miles of one-lane road through low-hanging forest. It was easy to imagine horsedrawn-buggies and even Native Americans using the same path beside the creek in ages past.

A view of the washed-out bridge. The survey crew assessing the damage said they had seven other bridges in Floyd County to check on that week. The height of the water was sometimes hard to imagine, but the drying mud left 25-30 feet above water level, sometimes hundreds of yards from flowing water, made it real.  

Bryan is a retired US Army Airborne jumper who came down from Tennessee to help his mom, Sara, clean out the mess. Bryan had retired four days before the flood. Sara was in the house when the water started rising and, though she kept an eye on it, had to exit the second story, climb onto the carport roof, and walk across a ladder to an elevated road behind the carport. She recently lost her husband and brother, so it was raining and pouring on her both literally and figuratively. Here she is holding a Bible signed and presented by the team at the end of the job. Words spoken by Jesus are printed in red and it contains the 50 questions most commonly asked of Billy Graham as an appendix. This team had volunteers from Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Lousiana, Kentucky, and North Carolina.

A friendly reminder in the sleeping area.

On Tuesday, our second house had items that were salvagable, so we put them outside in tarps and wrapped them against future rainfall. SP wanted to make the space livable again as soon as possible because the owner’s health was failing and he wanted to pass away in his home, not in a hospital or nursing home. SP’s primary purpose is to win souls to Christ and we are encouraged to love on the homeowners and other volunteers when the opportunity presents itself. The physical labor is a secondary concern.

The force of flowing water brought down trees all along creeks and streams.

Linda and her son (left) and a friend who came to help clean up. Her son had been working for several days to clear debris, tear up wet flooring, and bring down drywall to extract moldy insulation, so he was happy to see help arrive.

Our team leader, Ricky, presenting Mrs. Linda with a signed Bible. Ricky is a supremely-competent contractor that can answer just about any construction question. He has a low-key leadership style and a compansionate servant’s heart that shines right through his chest when the team circles up to pray before and after work.

This group shot shows a few day volunteers that came from Indiana to help out. The blonde young man is 18 and his sister is a bit older. They’ve been homeschooled and he plays soccer. Two other volunteers were also there for just a day. Some volunteers are locals who help out for a day or two when they can, racking up many days over what will be a long recovery. When I left, the two SP sites operating in Eastern KY had about 400 outstanding work orders, of which about 10% had been completed.

Everyone writes their name on their shirts since you meet so many people that it’s easy to forget who you’re talking to. People started calling me Mott and I couldn’t figure out why. That’s what comes from trying to write on a shirt while you’re wearing it. Each day, a kind soul from SP launders our filthy shirts then lays them out clean, folded, and ready for more demolition.

The cafeteria had a fully-functional kitchen where we eat breakfast and dinner prepared by SP staff/volunteers. They also have supplies for us to prepare bag lunches each morning. Mornings are marked by devotionals presented by the Billy Graham Evangelical Association deacons (in blue shirts) and evenings by Share Time, where volunteers speak about how they saw God working during the day. The first three days there were about 60 people packed into the tables, but by Friday there were 30 or so. More will arrive over the weekend, so the work goes on.

Share Time is often the most encouraging part of the experience as it opens your eyes to the work God is doing in people’s lives. We heard about a husband and wife who stood chest deep in water in their home for seven hours holding up their child to keep him/her dry. When they got out they discovered the house hadn’t lost power, but they made it through unzapped. It’s also a time to hobknob with your neighbors and hear their personal testimonies about what they’ve been through and how they’ve leaned on their faith. A nice lady from Wyoming that I connected with gave me a book she’d brought along, hoping to aid my extracirricular Christian studies. 

We got to the third house on Wednesday, which was a basement mud-out. A bucket brigade moved five-gallon buckets of mud up the stairs and out the door to be deposited in a mud river flowing down the front lawn to the ditch. My job was handing buckets up the basement stairs, but down below, those who brought rubber boots were shoveling through six inches of mud for most of the day.

The trash pile from the third house. Everything was ruined. Double-bed dump trucks with picking claws roam the area to bring refuse from curbs to the landfill. They started work on Tuesday, bringing loads to a flat area that was a mountaintop before it was strip-mined for coal. The area is economically depressed and hasn’t reinvented itself since the demand for coal decreased. Most residents didn’t have flood insurance, either because they couldn’t afford it or because they didn’t expect the water to get that high.

Thinking about making an Instagram to post this.
It’s pretty much impossible to mud-out without getting dirty.

Near the fourth house, on Friday, some nice Mennonites were serving lunch. They had prepackaged meals, shaded places to sit, and Christian music on the portable speaker. They even had a drive-through. SP was far from the only aid group operating in the area. I saw a men’s Baptist group in yellow shirts and a crew from the Appalachian Christian Project loaned us forked shovels that made quick work of stubborn floorboards.

Dorito casserole, a Mennonite delicacy?

The fourth house had a mud-out component. About six volunteers from West Virginia Gassaway Baptist Church worked in the dark to clear it out. Working with volunteers in their 60s and 70s are doing this sort of thing is great motivation when I’m feeling lazy. One of the guys from Gassaway uses four of his six vacation weeks each year volunteering and looks forward to retirement so he can do more.

A kind local named Shane let me charge my car in his garage overnight before heading home. He plans to provide free insulation through one of his businesses once flooded homes have dried out. The local response to this disaster is stronger than any I’ve yet witnessed. Friends, family, and neighbors helping each other out as much as they can. It seems people in this area were already accustomed to depending on each other to get by and the flood was a test of resilience they were prepared to respond to with teamwork.

Sunrise over a Walmart parking lot in Knoxville, TN.

On the drive home, there was a lot of time to reflect on the things that were said and done. I became thankful for people who listen and respond to the still, small voice that tells them how to catch someone that steps out in faith.

Matt Meehan is Roser’s Financial Administrator. He is also a Stephen Minister and often follows the call to volunteer for Hands On Missions, especially Samaritan’s Purse disaster-relief missions.