March 1st, 2021 is a date many families in Owsley County, Kentucky will likely never forget.
On that day, in the early morning hours, residents across the county and the greater eastern Kentucky region were abruptly awakened by torrential downpours and rising flash floodwaters sweeping into their homes.
As morning broke through the clouds, the extent of the flooding quickly became apparent. Thousands of residents around the region had been impacted by extensive flood damage, and thousands more had been forced to evacuate their now-waterlogged homes and businesses.
Nestled in the sloping valleys alongside the South Fork of the Kentucky River, Fahe Member Partnership Housing, Inc. (PHI) and its Executive Director Cassie Hudson could not have anticipated the extent of the damage visited on their Booneville neighbors. Floodwaters had crested at over 44 feet, besting the city’s previous record by more than a foot and prompting over 49 local disaster declarations across nearby areas of the state.
In response, even as Partnership Housing scrambled to muster its own volunteers and resources to provide emergency shelter and disaster relief, Hudson was tapped to serve as Owsley County’s Flood Recovery Coordinator. Wielding dual roles with immense responsibilities for her hometown’s displaced families, the burden of surveying the damage and charting out a path for community reconstruction fell to her and her team. Thankfully, Hudson’s years of community development expertise proved to be an invaluable asset, and she has since managed to adeptly navigate her organization and her flood-impacted neighbors though an unprecedented time.
While Hudson and her team at Partnership Housing quickly mobilized volunteers and emergency supplies, they soon realized the task of rebuilding so many homes and businesses called for far more personnel and resources than they could provide alone. One family living near Sexton Creek saw their whole home flooded, losing virtually all of their belongings inside. Countless others just like them bore similar stories of tragedy and loss, stripped of lifelong family homes and lifetimes of hard-earned necessities and property overnight. Even as Partnership Housing marshalled volunteers to demolish water-stained drywall and muck-out warped floors and mud-sodden coverings, it was clear they would need more help if they were to reunite displaced families with their rehabbed homes in a timely fashion.
Fortunately, Hudson’s calls for assistance did not go unanswered. Partnership Housing received donations from several generous benefactors in the region, including Holy Family Catholic Church, the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, Congressman Hal Rogers’s PRIDE initiative, and Eight Days of Hope. These much-needed gifts of materials and labor were soon paired with an influx of cash donations to purchase supplies and cover expenses for work crews and volunteers. One of Partnership Housing’s construction teams, Ball Custom Builders, even donated their own time and man-hours to the cause. Joined by scores of volunteers, these craftsmen, carpenters, and skilled construction hands worked long days and oftentimes even into the night to rebuild what nature had taken only minutes to destroy.
With so many displaced families depending on Partnership Housing to remain in their lifelong homes, Hudson knew that unfortunately, for now, government disaster relief wasn’t able to arrive in a timely manner to make her community whole again. Sensing a calling to step in and fill this gap, several area Christian charities joined in the effort to extend God’s blessings to their neighbors and offer comfort during a time of extraordinary hardship. One such faith-based organization, HIS Builders, sent construction volunteers to Owsley County to assist Hudson’s team with the restoration of the McDaniel family’s home. Led by their volunteer leader, Tina, and guided by prayerful inspiration, the group worked all weekend alongside Partnership Housing construction crews, AmeriCorps Members, and other volunteers to get the family’s house repaired. By that last Sunday evening, the group finally celebrated the completion of the unit, and the McDaniel family, who had been living in a hotel in nearby Beattyville for over a month, gratefully moved back into their home.
While recovery efforts continue to make steady progress, the larger challenge of finding long-term, livable homes that families can afford still persists throughout the region. Even before the flooding struck Owsley County, the COVID pandemic of the prior year had served as a solemn reminder of the importance of having access to quality, livable, and safe housing during a crisis. Just like the pandemic that had forced families to shelter in place for weeks and months at a time, a natural disaster like a flood highlights how many families struggle to find a secure and steady place to seek refuge, especially when faced with unpredictable and unprecedented circumstances.
Moreover, the recent flooding is unlikely to be the last natural disaster Appalachian communities will face. Although much of the existing housing stock in Owsley County and its surrounding localities had been long overdue for much needed safety and efficiency upgrades, the flooding only amplified the need for costly repairs. For dealing with these needed repairs whether recently caused by floods or by long-term disinvestment, Fahe is advocating for a comprehensive plan to rebuild our prosperity with accessible, holistic investments in home repairs and upgrades specifically for families who are most vulnerable when a disaster unfolds. This funding could serve to deploy fairly quickly after a flood, where in some cases now, families wait for years to return to a home. Not only would the funding serve for recovering after a disaster, but comprehensive investments in upgraded housing stock and residential infrastructure would add value to the local economy and improve the health and quality of life for the families living there while creating quality job opportunities.
Even so, regardless of what unforeseen challenges and tragedies that may arise, communities and families know they can count on Fahe Members like Cassie Hudson and Partnership Housing to step up when they are needed most. And as the many volunteers and generous donors who pitched in alongside Hudson’s team demonstrated, they’ll likely be joined by plenty of friends and partners along the way. “I have been reassured that there are good people doing good work and that there are good times to be had in the middle of the hard work, as well as a tremendous sense of accomplishment,” Hudson reflects. It’s why Fahe continues to support outstanding local leaders like Cassie Hudson, so that no community must endure its worst days alone.
In addition to the charities and organizations mentioned above, Cassie Hudson and Partnership Housing extend their sincerest appreciation to the following donors and generous benefactors who came to their neighbors’ aid in a time of great need:
Emma Quire Mission Center
Lowe’s of London
Sacred Heart Church, Ohio
Saint Mary Church, Ohio
Transfiguration Parish, NY
City of Booneville, KY
Owsley County Fiscal Court
Owsley County Public Library
Owsley County Youth Service Center