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Eastern Kentucky towns are grateful for the volunteers, but worry it won't last

Many volunteers are getting to work helping those without the ability or means to remove mud and any other flood damaged items from their houses.
Justin Hicks
Many volunteers are getting to work helping those without the ability or means to remove mud and any other flood damaged items from their houses.

Outside of Terry Thies’ house in Bulan, Ky., putrid ankle-deep mud coats the yard like pudding. Josh Boyd has been down in the basement scraping out mud for days.

"The mud originally was about halfway up to my boots when we came through here the first day we were here," Boyd said. "You couldn’t get in."

Upstairs, volunteers are tearing out walls, floors and kitchen cabinets damaged by flood waters. It’s pretty much a complete gutting of the house. 

The help comes from all over – some people live down the street, others came from as far as Georgia. Thies looks on as they toss entire drawers into trash bags and take sledgehammers to the walls that once sheltered generations of her family.

She’s obviously overwhelmed, but she counts herself lucky. She only lost a dog in the flooding. It had crawled under her bed to hide from the storm. 

"I’m on some kind of antidepressant and I’ve threatened to go off of it because I can’t cry," Thies said. 

But, mostly, she’s just grateful for the help.

"They’re working hard," she said. "These are strangers to me, but they’re family now."

People in communities that were hit by the historic floods are grateful for anyone and everyone who can help, whether it’s gutting houses, delivering supplies up remote mountain roads, or providing shelter. Just organizing and coordinating volunteers when they show up is a huge task too.

Chris Doll checks in at a civic theater turned into an impromptu volunteer coordination center in nearby Hazard. He works for the Housing Development Alliance which was building low-income housing in the area before the flood. Now they’re directing demolition. 

"Everybody who used to do other stuff is now doing flood disaster response," Doll said. "We are going out and mucking and gutting houses because we have tools, we have trucks, and we have [all] that. We have people that are in city hall that are working to coordinate the disaster [relief], we have people that work for Teach for America that are here working to coordinate volunteers…"

It’s all hands on deck. And the more deckhands they can get, the better, even though local hotels are pretty much booked solid with contractors and first responders. 

"Each day is a little bit different and each day is a little bit the same, but there’s still so much to do," he said.

With so much left to do, people like Doll are starting to worry the help may not last.

Luke Glaser, city commissioner in Hazard, says eastern Kentucky is frontpage news right now and that’s attracting volunteers. When that attention moves on, he worries the help will too. 

"Two or three weeks from now, houses are still going to need [to be] mucked out, people are still going to need mud removed, people are still going to need mold removed," Glaser said. "And the work is still not going to be done. I saw something yesterday that said it may take up to eight years to get back to where we were.”

Glaser says if people want to help, they can come to Hazard, and he’ll happily point them in the right direction. And as project leader Boyd points out, there’s no experience needed.

“None of us have lived through this either, this is the first time we’ve ever had to do something [like this], so we’re just all trying to figure it out as we go,” he said.

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