Photo by Billy Robinson
By Billy Robinson
On July 28 through the first part of August, large amounts of heavy rain fell, in some areas up to 11 inches in a day’s time. This was a “perfect storm” of adverse conditions leading to a deadly crisis in Eastern Kentucky.
Flash flooding caused rivers and creeks to turn into torrents of violent raging water that decimated everything in their path—including vehicles, homes, animals and at least 39 lives. At least two people are still unaccounted for as of this writing.
To make matters worse, this area is known as among the poorest counties in the United States. What little some people had was literally swept away, and they have no means of replacing such precious items as homes, clothes and transportation. Many are still seeking places of refuge.
Into this situation came the South Carolina’s United Methodist Early Response Team, which responded to a plea for help from Kentucky in the aftermath.
Our team of 21 volunteers were led by the Rev. Mike Evans and Chuck Marshall. We came with big, caring and loving hearts along with two ERT trailers filled with disaster relief work tools and supplies. This was the first response for ERT Trailer SC10, which was one of three new trailers that was recently completed and stocked. It was purchased through many donations from volunteers across the South Carolina Conference of the UMC.
We were sent to Jackson, Kentucky, and stayed at Hampton UMC, who were wonderful hosts. Jill Evans of our team headed up our base camp operations.
We also had a mission within a mission, as Lamar United Methodist Church, Lamar, had collected a large number of supplies for Kentucky. Connectional Ministries Director Rev. Millie Smith asked if we could deliver the needed supplies, and we agreed. We off-loaded them at the Methodist Mountain Mission in Jackson to a grateful mission group who were striving hard to help so many devastated people (see related story, here).
Our disaster response teams were first directed to the downtown Jackson area of Sycamore Street, where the severe flooding had literally come up into the police station and other county offices. A large number of homes were affected with flood waters that averaged 5 feet into the homes, destroying furniture and possessions. ERTs were all racing with the clock trying to muck and clean out their homes before mold and hazardous conditions took over to the extent that the homes would have to be destroyed.
Susan Spencer told about how she went door to door on the worst night of the flooding telling her neighbors to evacuate. Two of her neighbors were in their 80s and refused to leave their homes, insisting the waters had never risen that high before. In 1984 and 2021 water did come up onto the street, but only into the floor of a few homes near the creek—40 feet below them in a ravine. It would take a phenomenal amount for water to rise into their homes, they said.
Spencer persisted until the elderly homeowners finally left their homes with family persuasion. She and others saved many lives that night as the waters swiftly rose and engulfed homes.
While we were working there, a friend of Spencer’s came by, Patricia Baker. Baker shared with us her own horrific story on the worst night of the flooding. A widow, Baker had been at home alone and became extremely concerned and then frightened as she watched the floodwaters rapidly overtake her home in the dark of night. To add to her level of terror was the fact that she could not swim.
As her home was swept away from its foundation, Patricia Baker found herself in the raging floodwaters, literally fighting for her life. She was able to grab ahold of the back bumper of her late husband’s car and held on as it was also swept into the wildly raging torrent of water. The car hit a tree, which threw her off onto the tree. She grabbed the tree in the dark and held on for dear life until morning, when a National Guard Helicopter rescued her out of the tree.
One of her cousins and several neighbors died, Baker shared, and her whole world had turned upside down. She lost everything she owned.
Mold and heat
We split into two and sometimes three teams mucking and cleaning out the flooded homes. This encompassed tearing out waterlogged Sheetrock, flooring and fixtures. We worked with the passion of Jesus Christ to show his love to so many hurting people while also getting all the good work done possible while we were there. The hot and humid temperatures beat down on all of us, but with God’s strength and determination, we were able to persevere.
Complicating the strenuous work was one of our worst enemies: mold. This forced us to take extra personal protective measures such as wearing masks, respirators and Tyvek suits. We also had to constantly monitor each other to make sure we did not get any heat-related injuries. We also sprayed the homes to kill the mold.
One home we worked on was for Cynthia Bell, a physician’s assistant. She had recently finished her training and had been offered jobs in more prominent areas, but she chose to return to a poorer county where she could be most effective in helping people. We were honored to remove all the flood-damaged materials from her home.
Next door, at the home of Austin Craft, was a family that had been mucking out their home one day at a time since they were able to return without any professional help. All members had allergies and two had asthma. The active mold spores had them on antibiotics, yet they were determined to get back into their home and were doing all they could to make it happen. They stated that they were at their wit’s end when God showed up through us and took over.
It was a daunting task, as in the center of their home was a huge basement with no outside access. It had completely filled with water, mud and muck during the flooding and had not been touched. Most of the water had gradually seeped out of a drain, leaving a wet, muddy residue everywhere. Active mold was on the rafters and throughout, along with the stench and hazards left by the flooding aftermath. The slippery, muddy and hot conditions made the task much more difficult, along with the fact that we had to bring everything up a narrow set of stairs through the interior of the house to the roadside.
Shoring up bridges
According to locals, there were more than 800 suspension footbridges in the path of destruction, and the flood destroyed all but a few of them. This cut off a lot of people’s access to their homes and property.
Chuck Marshall led one of our teams to help shore up one of these bridges for the family of Tim Gilbert, whose home was still standing but needed shoring for stability and a handrail added. Tim’s wife had been transported to a local hospital for medical issues the night before our arrival. EMS had to hand-carry her through the waist-deep creek in the dark to get her to an awaiting ambulance.
Our team was able to stabilized the bridge and also added handrails to make it safe. As our ERTs were leaving the job site, Mrs. Gilbert crossed the bridge for the first time in three weeks to get her mail out of the mailbox.
We are so thankful for the honor and privilege to represent Jesus to so many people in need. The physical labor was only one aspect. Listening and caring about the survivors and all others—including emergency response personnel and team members—is where the real healing begins and where all (including us) receive the most fulfillment.
We gave out Jesus’ love through Scripture and care goods plus handshakes, hugs, sweat, tears, minor injuries and sore muscles, while tolerating dirty and filthy conditions. We overcame fears of mold, COVID, major injuries, vehicle wrecks, financial situations and a wide variety of concerns.
We were so blessed by our South Carolina Conference and home churches that we were able to cover everyone’s expenses and leave $2,000 in donations for the local United Methodist churches to disperse as needed.
We worked on seven homes and repaired one footbridge, putting in 580 volunteer hours. To God be the glory!
South Carolina ERT volunteers were the Rev. Mike Evans, Heather Evans, Chuck Marshall, Jill Evans, Dawn Rhodes, Curtis Burnett, Bill and Elaine Turner, Mike Luther, Phil Griswold, Worth Adams, Rev. Scott Bratton, Dr. John Gemmell, Tony and Mary Watson, Hank Edens, Mark Honeg, Jerry Pullen, Chuck Knight, Dan Dowbridge and Billy Robinson.
Two ERT trainings set for this fall
Interested in serving on the UMCSC UMVIM Early Response Team that helps after disasters?
On two Saturdays, Oct. 29 and Nov. 5, the conference will host an ERT training. Both the basic and renewal classes will be offered.
On Oct. 29, there will be an ERT Basic/Renewal class at Highland Park UMC located at 1300 2nd Loop Road, Florence.
On Nov. 5, there will be an ERT Basic/Renewal class at Cornerstone UMC located at 2697 Heckle Blvd., Rock Hill.
The ERT Basic class is from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and the fees are $40 per person, which includes a manual, shirt, cap and badge. The ERT Renewal Class is 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. with a $20 fee.
If you have not had COVID vaccines, then please bring your personal mask and wear it as you see fit. If you feel ill after registering, then cancel and we will refund your funds.
Everyone also needs to do a background check (free) through UMCOR at https://app.verifiedvolunteers.com/en/Candidates/Account/Register. If asked for a code then put in 9x2r4eh. You may or may not be asked for it.
To register, go to https://www.umcsc.org/ertregistration.
For more information: 803-539-8429 or [email protected].
Robinson is the South Carolina UMVIM ERT coordinator.