Residents of Perry County, in Eastern Kentucky, woke up on the morning of July 28, 2022 to find homes and businesses washed away in what’s been deemed a 1,000-year flood. FEMA data gathered by Ohio River Valley Institute shows that nearly 14,000 homes reported some damage; more than 8,200 were deemed uninhabitable without repair.
One of the first to take action was the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky (FAKY), a non-profit headquartered in Hazard. Southerly Community Reporting Fellow Emily Hudson interviewed the foundation’s executive director, Gerry Roll, about how her organization partnered with the community to meet flood survivors’ immediate needs and how to mitigate risks of future flood disasters.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Emily Jones Hudson, Southerly: Where are you originally from and what brought you to Hazard?
Gerry Roll, Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky: I was born in West Palm Beach Florida and that’s where I came here from about 32 years ago. I was a single mom. I had gotten out of a marriage that was not a good one. I needed a do-over, a new start, and this seemed like a good place to do that. What I found out later, is that in the history of Appalachia, this is where a lot of people came to start a new life. My story can actually connect to the story of generations of people coming to the Appalachian mountains to hide or to get a fresh start. I have lived here ever since. I don’t have an attachment to a piece of land…that generational attachment that a lot of people do, but I have an attachment in my heart that is impenetrable. This place will always be a part of me and I will always be a part of this place.
Southerly: It’s like these mountains open up their arms and welcome you, it grows on you.
GR: It’s like an embrace. Every time I come home…it’s like this relief. Here, you can look and you can think, okay, as soon as I get over that mountain, as soon as I get over that hill, something else will be on the other side. There is always something to look over, to look toward, to look to.
Southerly: The philanthropic work of FAKY has become so vital and impactful in building community capacity. What led to the creation of the Foundation and what was your role?
GR: Well, I came here to work for this group of churches that was doing just awesome work…they had a food pantry…we were helping people buy medicine, we created a very robust child care program and our first homeless shelter in Eastern Kentucky. We started the Housing Development Alliance.
And after coming up on 20 years we started thinking, Why do we keep putting people in shelters? What can we do to think big and visionary about the generations to come? And we started asking people, ‘What’s your dream, what do you want your community to look like, what do you want it to be?’ And we came up with a lot of stuff around education, around health, around housing and recreation, and art and children. People got excited talking about not what’s wrong with us, but what’s right and what we can do with what’s right to make it better. So we said, ‘How do we do this?’ And somebody said, ‘Community foundation.’ The Foundation was about that bigger vision.What we want to create is a place where two things can happen:
Other people’s children want to come here and live and do good and be part of the community like I did.
And we also want to say to our children, our next generation, ‘Go forth and do good. And when you’re tired or when you have your own children or when you choose to or want to: we’re here for you too.’ So we want to create those communities where people want to live and raise families.
Southerly: Can you speak a little about what your organization did when daylight broke on the morning of July 28th when people woke up to rising waters that would severely damage their homes or completely carry them away?
GR: I woke up hearing these buckets of water coming down on my house and thought, this is bad. Turned on my porch light and saw the mudslide coming down but did not touch my house. I was so lucky. As high up as we are, we had a mudslide, and I thought, this is really bad. My text messages started going off; it was the staff saying, ‘This is bad, are we going to open the crisis line?’ We put it out for people to donate. We said, ‘Yes, open it up, get it out there!’ The response was phenomenal.
Within two days, three days, we were offering people $250. We were offering checks to people without knowing how much was going to come in…And another thing we did that I think is really important, we didn’t ask people for a lot of paperwork, a lot of documentation, we went with our gut and our trust in our community and our place. And if somebody came in and said my home was flooded, all we needed was their basic information. We put it in the system and we processed a check. We didn’t say, ‘Send us pictures, show us your deed, give us your driver’s license.’ We just said, ‘You are suffering, here’s something, we believe in you, we trust you, here, that’s all we need.’
Southerly: What did the recent flooding disaster show you about this community?
GR: Everybody needs money. But in all of that, we will have people walk in here and they will say, ‘I got this check in the mail yesterday, but it must have been a mistake because you had already sent me one. So, I’m bringing this one back to you.’ These are not wealthy people. These are people who have lost their entire home and are coming and saying, ‘I got some, make sure somebody else gets this one.’ That says a lot about community and place.
Southerly: What are the housing needs in Perry County post-flood?
GR: If we think too hard about it, it is overwhelming. We had 8,000 people ask for help [from FAKY]. There are going to be people that are going to have to move. Our job as a community and a region is to let them know that does not mean you have to leave us. Your place is still with us. And we want you here, no matter who you are, we want you here.
Southerly: Can you tell me about how you have partnered with the Housing Development Alliance to build homes for those who lost theirs due to the flooding?
GR: The first thing we did was write a check to Housing Development Alliance, a check to HOMES [Housing Oriented Ministries Established for Service, Inc.] over in Letcher County and said, ‘Here’s some money just in case you need … boots, whatever you need…’ So it was great to be able to just say to them, ‘Don’t let money hold you up from mucking and gutting these houses that need all this help right now.’ And there are other partnership housing I believe in Owsley County and Wolf and Frontier Housing around Magoffin and Johnson [counties]. But we went to them first and said, ‘You’re helping people muck and gut, we know you, you know us, here’s some money.’
And then, we said, ‘What’s it going to take repairing and building?’ And we made a commitment right off the bat of $1.2 million dollars and said we’ll build 16 houses, four in each of the hardest hit counties: Knott, Perry, Letcher and Breathitt. So these homes are getting built now.
Southerly: Some might say building 16 homes is just a drop in the bucket compared to what is really needed, so how is this going to continue?
GR: I don’t know. We have to do all that we can do, as soon as we can do it, and have faith that we will persevere to get to the next place and do more…
Southerly: So these houses that are being built, are they being built where the people lost their homes?
GR: Build or repair out of the floodplain or out of the flood-prone area. A lot of the houses were not in the floodplain that got flooded. The creeks rose and the mud came down but they weren’t necessarily in the flood zone. So each of them will have to be evaluated as to whether this is an appropriate plot.
We have got to figure out if folks were on the creek because the creek was pretty or because the creek was easier: let’s put you up above the creek. If there is no up above the creek, let’s keep this place sacred for you, but we’re going to move you over here to this higher ground. If you’re in Rowdy, we can keep you in Rowdy, but maybe not on this side of this creek. This place is still going to be here. We all have our gravesites that we go to because these are our people. Those aren’t going anywhere. There’s land that we’re connected to that we can keep, but we may have to put our house somewhere else. And those are the things we’re trying to figure out at FAKY. How can we make sure that we can help you keep your land sacred even if it becomes the property of the community? But it’s still here and I can wander back from here anytime I want to. But I’m going to live over here now. My community is going to help me make that happen…
Southerly: What can we do in the future to prevent such a catastrophic event from happening again?
GR: If we’re smarter and take the time and the resources to build outside of those flood-prone spaces, we will mitigate some of the risks for the next time. Because there will be a next time. And we don’t want to put people back in harm’s way.
Southerly: Recently during a community meeting following the flood, someone expressed a concern that people will leave the area and relocate elsewhere because of lack of housing post-flood. What are your thoughts on this?
GR: We just have to do all that we can to offer people the opportunity and the hope that will keep them here. At the same time, if someone feels it’s in their better interest to go somewhere else, then I wish them well. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t continue to try to build a place where other people will want to come. Because this is the place to be.