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Eastern Ky. school districts report severe flood damage to buildings, communities

Downtown Whitesburg, Ky., in LetcherCo., sees devastating floods after heavy rain in late July.
Katie Myers
Downtown Whitesburg, Ky., in LetcherCo., sees devastating floods after heavy rain in late July.

The flood damage to eastern Kentucky school buildings and communities is severe and widespread, according to system superintendents who spoke with state officials on a call Monday.

“Our community as a whole is devastated,” Letcher County Schools superintendent Denise Yonts said, fighting through tears. Yonts said she knows of at least two school district staff who died in the flash floods that swept through the region last week. Those floods also inundated six of the district’s buildings.

“Three of my schools have 8 feet of water in them,” she said.

In Perry County, district superintendent Jonathan Jett said several of his school buildings were flooded. One is so severely damaged he believes it may be beyond repair.

“I think that’s going to be a rebuild—completely,” Jett said of Robinson Elementary. 

In the meantime, Jett said he’s unsure where to put the students enrolled there. He’s weighing multiple options: splitting students between other schools, using a church or community center, or sending them across the county line to different districts.

But Jett is worried that could mean students might not return, an outcome that would impact the culture of the district as well as its finances. School funding is driven by enrollment and attendance.

At least one student has died. Knott County Schools superintendent Brent Hoover said a rising second grader is among the 35 reported dead so far. She was swept away from her parents’ grasp, along with her three younger siblings.

One thing is clear for Jett and other eastern Kentucky superintendents: The school year will not start on schedule later this month.

“We’re not going to be able to even consider starting school for at least two weeks from the original start date,” Jett said.

In addition to grief and the damage to facilities, districts are also facing miles of washed out roads, downed power lines and water service outages. Hundreds of students have been left homeless, and so have staff. 

“The homes are gone now—that’s the biggest concern right now,” Breathitt County Schools superintendent Phillip Watts said. “I’m pretty sure we have some casualties. It’s really, really, really sad. I’ve got staff members in cars camping out… just refusing to leave.”

For now, school leaders said they’re focused on meeting immediate needs: District buildings that escaped major damage are serving as shelters, relief centers and staging grounds for the National Guard.

“The positive thing is that the schools that are intact have become community centers,” Yonts said. “The staff and students in our county have pulled together and have been working tirelessly to get the people what they need.”

In Floyd County, school superintendent Anna Shepherd said her school facilities were spared, and the district has opened them to people for showers, laundry service and meals.

Even as school leaders focus on getting people the basics, they worry about the long-term impacts of such a disaster. Jett, in Perry County, said the floods hit the most impoverished parts of the county the hardest, where residents don’t have home insurance and may not get enough help from FEMA to rebuild.

“I'm really concerned that we may lose people from our communities who have lost everything because there's not a lot of options,” he said. “I think people, if they leave here, they're never coming back.”

On the call, eastern Kentucky superintendents got advice from their counterparts on the opposite end of the state. Western Kentucky school leaders are still dealing with the aftermath of December’s historic tornado outbreak.

Western Kentucky superintendents Joe Henderson, Leonard Whalen and Rob Clayton advised their eastern Kentucky colleagues to be careful about managing the deluge of donations coming in, and to prepare for the onerous process of documentation for FEMA.

Henderson also urged his colleagues to focus on self-care in order to be ready to help others.

“You can run yourself in the ground. It's just our nature as educators that we take care of our people,” he said. “But you got to take care of yourself mentally and physically, because it is going to be a long haul.”

Kentucky Commissioner of Education Jason Glass encouraged superintendents to think about what they might request of state lawmakers, should a special legislative session be called.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.

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