Districts assess damage, try to start school year as eastern Kentucky recovers from devastating floods
Kentucky School Advocate
By Brenna R. Kelly
KSBA staff writer
Sitting barefoot in his truck at 2 a.m., John Hollan watched the fast-moving water fill the house he built and lived in for 32 years.
From the glow of a streetlight, Hollan could see the water reach the windows of the single-story home. Then the electricity went out. Hollan and his girlfriend waited in the dark on the road for about four hours until water receded.
“It didn’t hit me until the next morning,” said Hollan, a Breathitt County board member. “It actually hit me hard when I walked in and there was mud on top of everything in the living room.”The water had reached 4 feet up the walls covering all of Hollan’s possessions in a thick coat of mud, destroying all his appliances, ruining the floors, and leaving the 70-year-old without even a pair of shoes. In his 66 years of living on the land his grandfather bought in the Lost Creek community, the creek that runs along Ky. 15 had never come within 150 to 200 feet of the house. But that night, when the torrential rain woke his girlfriend, the creek-turned raging river was already on the back step of the house. Hollan grabbed the keys to his truck which was on higher ground but failed to grab a pair of shoes. As they escaped, the water was up to their knees.
For the first several nights after the historic July 28 floods that left at least 39 people dead, homes, business and vehicles destroyed and at least 13 eastern Kentucky schools severely damaged, Hollan slept in his truck.
As volunteers distribute donations from a Perry County elementary school on July 31, Gov. Andy Beshear stops by to thank the school staff and volunteers. (Provided by Gov. Beshear’s office)
Nearly three weeks later, he was staying in a friend’s trailer as he tried to salvage his home.Through it all, Hollan attended a special board meeting to push back the first day of school. But he believed even the delayed start date of Aug. 29 would be too soon.
“The upper part of the community where I live, it washed away 50 percent of the community, washed the houses away,” he said.
He also worried that school buses wouldn't be able to get to many homes because the roads look like they have been bombed, he said.Trying to start school
Eighteen school districts across eastern Kentucky were impacted in some way by the historic floods, and most delayed the first day of school. While district staff assessed the damage in the 13 schools inundated by water, schools that were unharmed became shelters, donation distribution centers and somewhere for displaced residents to get a hot meal.
Superintendents from the area held weekly virtual meetings with the Kentucky Department of Education to share their stories and resources.Students from Boyd County Schools work to distribute supplies at a Letcher County school. (Provided by Boyd Co. Schools)
“Our community as a whole is devastated,” Letcher County Schools superintendent Denise Yonts said as she fought through tears at the Aug. 1 meeting. At least two district staff died in the flood waters that swamped six buildings, including three where the water rose 8 feet.
As of late August, Yonts said she still wasn’t sure when the district would be able to start school and, when students return, they will likely have to go to other spaces or use alternating schedules.In Perry County, several buildings were severely damaged including Robinson Elementary where an exterior wall collapsed and the Buckhorn School, a K-12 school which filled with 6 feet of rushing water, said Superintendent Jonathan Jett.
At Buckhorn, Jett said, “there’s no windows, no doors, there’s debris throughout the building, trees, parts of houses, decks.”
But the damage at Robinson was worse. In addition to the exterior wall, about 20 percent of the roof collapsed.
In order to start school, the district decided to move both schools – all 580 students – into an old elementary school building while keeping the school populations in separate wings of the building.
The flood waters also damaged three Knott County Schools, including Hindman Elementary, Knott Central High School and the Area Technology Center, said Superintendent Brent Hoover. The district planned to begin school Sept. 19, but even that date was not firm.
“We do know we will be going back to school on concrete floors,” Hoover said on Aug. 18. “Right now air quality is a concern.”
The district also lost one student, Maddison Noble, who would have been a second-grader. She and her three siblings died when the flood waters ripped them from their parents who family said had been holding onto them in a tree.
Some students in the area returned to school in mid-August because their school buildings were spared. Jackson Ind. in Breathitt County and Hazard Ind. in Perry County both started school the week of Aug. 17. But students and staff in the districts were greatly impacted, the superintendents said.
An exterier wall and part of the roof of Robinson Elementary School in Perry County was damaged by flooding. (Photo provided by Perry County Schools)
“To see the faces of the students, parents and staff was incredible,” said Wayne Sizemore, Jackson Ind. superintendent. “The instructional process will start, but it’s really about mental supports for our students and our staff.”Breathitt County also suffered floods in 2020, but this time was much worse, said Superintendent Phillip Watts.
“We have some of the hardest hit areas that I’ve ever seen,” he said on Aug. 1. “The homes are gone, I’ve got staff members sleeping in cars.”
The district’s bus garage and ATC were destroyed and the high school damaged, he said. The elementary schools were relatively unscathed. The district also lost several buses and getting students to school with the buses they do have will be a challenge.
“We’ve got a lot of road issues and a lot of displaced families, right now,” Watts said.
He was heartened by a back-to-school celebration at Marie Roberts-Caney Elementary where students played in bounce houses and in sprinklers.
“A lot of kids are really wanting to get back in school and see their teachers and see some smiling faces,” he said.Carrying on
On Aug. 23, Hollan attended his district’s regular school board meeting, even as he continued to figure out how to repair his unlivable home. By then volunteers had cleared the house, ripping out the dry wall and pulling up the subfloor.
“We’ve got it gutted, everything 4 feet up,” he said. “There’s nothing left in the house but one chair.”
Floyd County Schools board member William Newsome helps carry food donations after the floods. (Provided by Anna Shepherd) How you can help
Hollan was hoping money from FEMA and a loan would allow him to someday move back into the house. Though he thinks about something that he has lost, he feels lucky to have a home to rebuild.“You decide, well, other people have got it worse even,” he said. “Their home’s gone, they can’t build back.”
The state has established the Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief Fund to assist those impacted by the floods. All donations to the Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief Fund are tax-deductible and donors will receive a receipt for tax purposes after donating. To donate go to TeamEKYFloodReliefFund.Ky.gov.