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In remote eastern Kentucky, neighbors help where no one else will

Havanna Thacker
Justin Hicks
Havanna Thacker walks back up a driveway after delivering water to a house. She has been organizing a community drop off site and delivering donations for days without much help.

Ohio Valley ReSource · In remote eastern Kentucky, neighbors help where no one else will

Over the past week, Havanna Thacker has transformed a historic high school in Carr Creek, Kentucky into a supply depot. While her mother whips up trays of food in a tiny cafeteria, she stocks the gym with supplies that people bring by the carload.

In the afternoon, she’ll deliver it all up remote roads damaged by tiny streams that heavy rains turned into raging rivers overnight.

A week after the initial flooding, there aren’t any state officials or FEMA representatives in this remote corner of Knott County. Thacker has been managing the outpost single-handedly for days. She’s exhausted and overwhelmed. 

This is the nature of getting help to eastern Kentuckians. While officials focus on finding the dead, it’s up to the living to help the living. Locals are helping family and friends in remote mountain passes without food, electricity or running water.

Many in the area say they’ve never seen a natural disaster like this. But what they lack in experience they make up for in the willingness to help each other.

Once the supplies are loaded up, Thacker hops into a large pickup and starts out on steep, rocky one-way roads. It’s quickly apparent why any disaster relief might miss people in these places where directions are told with family histories, not GPS coordinates. 

She’s learned that sometimes you have to offer help two or three times before folks will accept it. It’s not pride, but the belief that somehow, somewhere, someone else is probably worse off than you.

Take Larry Combs for instance. Earlier in the week, Combs told Thacker he was “fine.” But when she checked in on him later, he invited her into his house. He hadn’t told her his living room wall had caved in from a mudslide last week. Sunlight, plants and soil are pouring through.

When Havanna learns Combs slept there the night before, she becomes stern.

You’re not safe,” Thacker said. “You’re breathing in everything that’s soaking up wet, everything that’s coming in from outside inside, crawling, flying, whatever else.”

“Well if it’s out there it’s in here too,” Combs replies, before giving in. “I know it’s bad.”

Thacker gently tells Combs that it’s going to be OK.

“There’s no reason to be ashamed for any circumstance that you’re in,” Thacker said. “If we’re not talking to each other and we’re keeping everything to ourselves, we’re not going to get the help that we need.”

Thacker tells Combs that she loves him before turning out the door.

“We’re going to see how ‘fine’ your other people are up in here too,” she said.

It takes hours for Thacker to make the rounds to about a half dozen hollers in Knott County. Everyone is exhausted and wants to show off pictures of their once-beautiful homes.

Even warm, chatty folks like Delena Higgins are left speechless when trying to understand why some were spared and others lost everything.

“I don’t know that everybody will ever be able to get back on their feet,” Higgins said, trailing off. “It’s just, you know, how can you?” 

When Thacker finally gets back to the old high school, she walks into the gym, freshly stocked with a new round of donations.

Like a kid on Christmas morning, her tired eyes light up.

“We’ve got more blankets! We’ve got those bags over there! Look at the food table, there’s canned goods above and below the table,” she said, cataloging.

Just before shutting off the lights and heading home, she takes a moment to reflect.

“It’s been a long day. Strangers are becoming family. One step at a time. And learning to be a strong foundation for each other when the roads and everything else is being washed out from underneath us,” she said.

Thacker said she’ll do this again the next day and for many days to come.

Justin is LPM's Data Reporter. Email Justin at jhicks@lpm.org.