Kentucky churches and communities work together to meet the needs of flood victims

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (CNS) — Lori Helfrich, director of parish life at Mother of Good Counsel Church in Hazard County, Kentucky, had just volunteered at the food pantry her parish helps support.

They were cutting melons to distribute to people hard hit by the torrential rains and subsequent flooding in the southeastern region of the state.

“Northfork Local Foods (the food pantry that Hazard Parish is part of) has a lot of melon and is giving it out so people have fresh food,” Helfrich said on a mid-post conference call. noon on July 29 hosted by the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky.

“A lot of people don’t have water or electricity. As community partners and churches, that’s what we’re working on – trying to connect people where we can,” she said.

The rains began in late July 27 and continued the next day, causing massive flooding that destroyed hundreds of homes and wiped out entire communities, according to news reports.

Search and rescue teams, with assistance from the National Guard, began searching for missing persons on July 29. As of August 1, 660 air rescues and hundreds of boat rescues have been carried out.

By mid-morning on August 2, the death toll had reached at least 37 people, with more than a hundred still missing.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear called it “one of the most severe and devastating floods” in state history. He said President Joe Biden had approved his initial request for federal assistance to help with recovery efforts in 13 eastern Kentucky counties.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press” show on July 31, he said he believed recovery teams “will be finding bodies for weeks.”

The chances of more storms hitting the area were diminishing, but residents and rescuers instead faced extreme temperatures.

During the conference call, Helfrich said that in addition to Hazard County, which has a population of about 5,000, she has the most contact with Letcher, Knott, Perry, Owsley and Breathitt counties. Of Hazard’s 65 Catholic families, at least one family has lost everything, she said.

“Today the effort is focused on those who are still missing,” she said. Many floods occurred at night while people were sleeping. You compound the floods with high poverty rates and end up with the perfect storm.”

She said debris in the floodwaters and the number of washed out roads are preventing first responders from reaching people. And communication is uneven.

“Being able to reach people is difficult. The roads – 25 to 30 feet of road – just disappeared,” Helfrich said.

Fearing that the Panbowl Dam in Jackson could breach, authorities closed a main road, blocking access to nearby communities.

Assessing the devastation by its impact on Catholic families is not a good metric because they make up less than 1% of eastern Kentucky’s population, according to Helfrich.

But the Catholic Church works closely with community partners and is an important part of the community.

“In some cases, like Campton, the Catholic Church has the only pantry and feeds 300 people a month,” she said. “At Hazard, we have an emergency food pantry. We work with the housing development alliance. We work with community partners – that’s how it works. Parishes work with partners to provide local services.”

“People are very happy that we’re checking people out and they’ll get back to you as soon as they can. Phone reception is very spotty,” she said. “(Among) the people I spoke to from the parish, one lady was devastated, she has faced many difficult situations in her life and this is the worst. It’s a bit overwhelming in a way .

“Our parish here in Hazard covers three counties – approximately 1,000 square miles: Leslie, Perry and Knott,” she said. “A lot are from Letcher too. Their whole town of Whitesburg was under water since this morning. People are doing what they can, people are reaching out. But people are in shock. They’re just in shock. shock.”

Meg Campos, executive director of Catholic Charities of Lexington, who was also on the conference call, said: “People know they can turn to the Catholic Church.”

She said that “due to the scale of the disaster, Catholic Charities USA “contacted me to see how we can work together.”

They offered to “bring in additional manpower among people who have experienced disaster” and help identify Catholic parishes that can help with the distribution, Campos said.

Next steps to include identifying a parish or parishes that are accessible and able to distribute materials, such as water, she said.

A day earlier, Campos was on a conference call with 38 to 40 representatives from other faith-based agencies and a number of social service groups to begin determining the response that will be needed — short and long term — to help people. of southeastern Kentucky.

“Right now we are in this first step, the information gathering phase” to identify the impact on counties and their communities and to find out what parish life directors are “seeing on the ground,” said she said in a July 28 phone interview with Catholic News. Service.

The floods are worse than last year, “which was intense”, Campos added.

She said these conference calls with other agencies “will continue on a daily basis for the near future until the initial crisis subsides,” Campos said. “It’s always the short term – cleaning up, assessing the damage…feeding everyone and temporarily housing them. In the long term, it turns into a recovery phase.”

“Long-term needs can last for about a year” and Catholic Charities will be there, she added.

During the July 29 conference call, Campos said that for those who want to donate to relief efforts, “cash is best.”

“Cash donations are always the best way to help. We can buy needed items at any time,” she explained, adding that some help “can be a burden” when donated items are not available. not necessary. There is also no place to store items.

Those wishing to donate should go to catholiccharitieslexington.org, click on the “Donate Now” tab and nominate disaster contributions.

Helfrich said: “We’ll get into the next thing we can do – whether it’s slicing a melon or texting someone… and letting them know they’re not alone. “

“It’s really difficult,” she added. “Friends of ours lost their aunt and uncle, they couldn’t go out. One of our parishioners, her mom had to be evacuated and lost her entire business. It’s very difficult for people.”

“So many people couldn’t get in touch with the folks in Perry County,” she said. “It’s difficult when communication isn’t available to know they’re okay.”

Emergency shelters have been set up in schools and regarding Sunday church services, Helfrich said Hazard will likely have a communion service, “but whether or not we have a mass is up in the air.”

At this time, the pastor cannot attend Mother of Good Counsel Church in Hazard, but Catholic Churches in Jackson and Campton Churches are accessible.

“There are a lot of difficulties” in the region with its high unemployment rate and few job opportunities, Campos told CNS, “but there is also this strength of people that is so inspiring”.

“When I went to visit the floods last year and you went to someone’s house and they said, ‘I’m sure someone else is in a worse situation than me, so don’t tell me. not help if others are worse off,’” she said. recalled.

A man who felt this, she said, “sent us back with food from his garden. … It was the best watermelon I ever had.”

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