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Reopening a grocery store in eastern Kentucky after historic flooding

The historic flooding that killed 45 people in eastern Kentucky last July also destroyed one of the few grocery stores in Letcher County. Now, the IGA in Isom is back open for business.

Christon has been working at the IGA for 50 years. She bought the place in 1998 and has been running it since, except for the one interruption.

On July 29th last year, the little creek behind the IGA in Isom engulfed the narrow valley in water and debris; flooding Christon’s grocery store, and inundating everything nearby. By the time the historic flooding receded, a thick layer of mud plastered everything inside.

The health department condemned Christon’s store. A biohazard team came in to clean it. In fact, the only thing still original at the IGA in Isom are the concrete walls.

“We ended up with six feet three inches of water, mud-water, in our store,” she said. “It completely devastated everything.”

The next closest store was 15 to 25 miles away. For months after the floods, Isom residents had to drive as much as 45 minute to pick up a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk, Christon said.

Not long after news of the stores’ destruction broke, the president of IGA Inc. started a GoFundMe that brought in tens of thousands of dollars in donations from around the world.

Through it all, Christon was able to keep all 25 of her employees employed. Since the store reopened in April, she’s added eight more.

“Business has been great. We have increased our volume from whenever it actually shutdown in July,” she said.

Christon says that she thinks the flood recovery has gone well for her Letcher County.

“I think most of the community has decided they are going to stay. Everyone was really afraid it was going to be a flight out of Letcher County for a while,” she said.

But people are still dealing with the flood’s effects. During a recent rain storm, some local teachers who shop at the store told Christon that their students were panicked, worried their parents might be getting flooded again.

The reopened IGA now features Hunt Brothers Pizza as well as a new smoker to make dinners for people getting off work.

Christon decorated the renovated story with photos of people who live in the community.

When asked why, she points to the phrase on the back of the company shirts.

“This is my family. This is my community and this is my people,” Christon said.

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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