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Weeks after devasting floods eastern Kentuckians continue to rely on each other

neighbors
Stephen Bowling
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submitted photo
The fire department in Breathitt County worked 15-20 hour days following the historic flooding in eastern Kentucky

Physical and emotional damage remains front and center in Appalachia after deadly floods ravaged eastern Kentucky at the end of July.

People who live in mountain towns are struggling to rebuild their homes and lives. Despite those challenges, neighbors continue to help each other.

Stephen Bowling’s family has been in Breathitt County since 1786. The fifty-year-old said he and his family live on part of the property his great-grandfather got as a revolutionary war soldier. Bowling is the public information officer for the county’s fire department and even though he was not touched by the high water and historic flooding at the end of July, he’s been helping everyone who was.

“This was my 18th flooding event since I joined the fire department way back in 1987, I guess it was. As most people have noted this was unlike anything that we have ever seen,” said Bowling.

Bowling is also the high school’s volleyball coach and the executive director of the Breathitt County Public Library. But there’s something else that defines Stephen Bowling and it is probably one of the things that help him have such deep empathy for people who’ve lost everything in the flood.

“My oldest son was killed in an automobile accident in Florida on March the 16th of this year. And that came just prior to all of this. We were still dealing with that, but you still get out and you still help people,” said Bowling.

As the public information officer for the fire department, Bowling isn’t sitting behind a desk, he’s out with the firefighters helping with recovery. Bowling said his son’s death inspires him to keep going and help others.

“Losing a son is always difficult, 23- years- old, junior at Morehead State University. There was a medical emergency and the driver in the car passed out and he was killed as a result. As a matter of fact, there were three of them who died as a result of the accident. I’ve always had the philosophy when I’m out there with the fire department when we’re working wrecks when we’re working floods, I’m doing things for folks that I would want people to do for me if I was in need. So, losing my son, we called him Breckinridge, was even more incentive for me to help,” explained Bowling.

Like Stephen Bowling, Mandi Sheffel was born and raised in the mountains of Appalachia. She and her husband and son live in Breathitt County and her bookstore, the Read Spotted Newt in Hazard is close by in Perry County.

I met Mandi exactly one year ago at her bookstore while she waited on a steady flow of customers.

Sheffel said the community rallied around her when she first opened her bookstore and then had to close its doors due to COVID. And now she, like most of her eastern Kentucky neighbors is out every day, helping everyone and anyone affected by the flood.

“I mean, it’s been so heartwarming to see the way we just genuinely care about each other. And people don’t wait to be told what to do. They’re just stepping in and helping neighbors when they need help themselves,” reported Sheffel.

Sheffel said there is so much need right now it’s hard to know what to do first. She said it’s impossible to reach out to everyone who needs help.

”I mean you imagine a situation where everybody you know and love has been impacted by some kind of disaster and then there you are and you know I would think, well I have not reached out to this person. That feeling of guilt, of like I can’t touch base with everybody I know, there’s so much to do. And no matter what you did, it didn’t feel like enough,” said Sheffel.

Every day, Sheffel and her friend Wallace-Caleb Bates make their way into the community. Bates lives in Breathitt County and is a writer for Kentucky Teacher, a publication of the Kentucky Department of Education. Even though his great aunt was swept away in the flood and presumed dead he makes time to volunteer with the non-profit Aspire Appalachia. The 19-year-old said he’s working to connect folks with access to things like drywall and insulation so they can get back into their homes.

“You know a house is a place for shelter, but a home is so much more. A home provides folks with the care and the nurture and the safety that folks need emotionally,” said Bates.

While volunteers like Bates continue helping with recovery, musicians in the region are holding benefit concerts to raise money for flood relief efforts.

Kris Preston founding member of CoalTown Dixie, an all-female Bluegrass band from Eastern Kentucky said two of her band members were directly affected by the floods, yet they’ve played their 3rd benefit concert called Healing to the Holler.

“It’s proven that music can heal. In the events that we’ve played to benefit the flood, it’s a fine line because you’re having fun, you’re playing music, people are up dancing but then we have to remember there were tragic losses,” said Preston.

The mandolin player said the benefits for flood relief have raised an estimated 100 thousand dollars. She said CoalTown Dixie and other musical groups participating are mindful that the proceeds get to a credible source so they are distributed to folks in eastern Kentucky.

Whether it’s a local fire department, a writer or even a musician, neighbors are determined to help each other recover in hard-hit eastern Kentucky.

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Cheri is a broadcast producer, anchor, reporter, announcer and talk show host with over 25 years of experience. For three years, she was the local host of Morning Edition on WMUB-FM at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Cheri produced and hosted local talk shows and news stories for the station for nine years. Prior to that, she produced and co-hosted a local talk show on WVXU, Cincinnati for nearly 15 years. Cheri has won numerous awards from the Public Radio News Directors Association, the Ohio and Kentucky Associated Press, and both the Cincinnati and Ohio chapters of the Society for Professional Journalists.
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