The destruction and loss caused by heavy rains and flooding in many Eastern Kentucky counties in late July was still very much evident driving along KY Route 15 between Jackson and Hazard several weeks later. Mobile homes were pushed off their foundations, and debris, including large pieces of metal siding, household items, and even vehicles, lined the creek bed. Large supply trucks frequently passed by, and roadside laundry trailers and those distributing food, water and other necessities dotted the highway.
Their love and concern for local residents led Mike Chowning, pastor at Our Mother of Good Counsel Catholic Community (MGCCC) in Hazard from 1993-2016, and Pat Riestenberg, who ministered there in a variety of roles for more than 20 years, back to the region Aug. 17 to see the situation for themselves and connect with local agencies that are aiding in flood relief.
In an area where there are few Catholics, the presence of the friars of St. John the Baptist Province was a beacon of hope and justice. The region has long been burdened by poverty and oppression, yet the people are welcoming, love God and neighbor and are dedicated to family and community. The friars arrived in Eastern Kentucky in 1962 at the invitation of Diocese of Covington Bishop Richard H. Ackerman to assume responsibility for Mother of Good Counsel and its mission in Bulan. Over the years, friars also served at Holy Cross in Jackson, Church of the Good Shepherd in Campton, Holy Trinity in Harlan, St. Stephen in Cumberland, and Church of the Resurrection in Lynch.
Being good neighbors
Pat, who taught at St. Therese Little Flower in Cincinnati before her time in Eastern Kentucky, said, “I loved everything about being there. I fell in love with the hills, but mostly the people, their love for the earth, their generosity of spirit. The saw the church as family. I saw kids born there that have since grown up and have kids of their own. It was truly home for me there.”
“We were good neighbors to one another,” said Mike of the relationship between the friars and area residents. “I think the friars were a positive influence in terms of just loving one another, cooperating and helping each other, accepting people. My experience there was that my job as pastor was to walk with the people and love them and accept them, whether they were Catholic or not. The people there just needed someone to walk with them who was willing to love them and learn to understand their culture.”
Being good neighbors included the friars’ support of the Housing Development Alliance (HDA), established in 1993 to provide affordable housing in the region. Mark Gehret was a founding board member, with Mike also serving on the board during his time as pastor. Mike and Pat met with Scott McReynolds, executive director of HDA, and Gerry Roll, chief executive officer of the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, during their visit to renew longtime friendships and hear about current relief efforts
According to Scott, HDA estimates more than 1,000 homes in its service area (Breathitt, Knott, Leslie and Perry counties) are a total loss, and least 2,300 were flooded, but not destroyed. In response, HDA has temporarily shifted its focus from construction and home repair to crisis clean up, primarily mucking up water and mud from flooded homes.
“It’s heartbreaking, nasty, disgusting work,” Scott acknowledged, praising the efforts of HDA staff and visiting volunteers, who have completed 15 muck outs to date, with another 11 in progress.
HDA is working closely with the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, which supports a variety of community organizations in the region. To date, said Gerry, the Foundation has received close to 7,000 applications for “We Believe in You Money,” grants of $250 to help those impacted by the flood meet immediate needs. The Foundation is also addressing the need for grants to get small family farms and businesses back up and running.
“People are still shell shocked and don’t always know what they need,” Gerry said. “A priority has been gathering information and making sure people at least have food and shelter. We’ve had people who were stuck in their homes because a bridge washed away or lost their cars and have no means of transportation.”
The road to recovery
Long-term recovery is complicated for a variety of reasons. Scott noted that rebuilding is risky at many sites due to the risk of future flooding, along with a shortage of available land on which it is safe to build new homes.
Scott and Gerry have heard from some locals who are considering relocation, but most plan to remain in the hills they call home. “It’s their land, their home, their family. They don’t want to leave,” said Gerry.
Amid the loss and devastation, there are signs of hope: generous donors, dedicated volunteers, communities coming together to support one another, and the faith and resiliency that has brought the people through challenging times before. “County to county, people are pulling together and there are things that give you hope,” Gerry said.
She noted the examples of one family who arrived at a donation site in a beat up car, with only the clothes on their backs, to share the little they had with others, and children as young as seven or eight who have raised funds for flood relief at lemonade stands.
Scott expressed his gratitude for the friars’ support over the years, saying, “They provided us with great leadership, insisted we treat all people with dignity, helped build us into an organization that has a servant’s heart and continually challenges us to remember the poorest of the poor.”
He drove Mike and Pat outside of Hazard to visit a couple of flood-damaged residences where HDA is actively at work on clean up, including the home of an elderly military veteran, where countless buckets of mud had been mucked out. Ruined personal possessions and debris were piled in the front yard. Across the street, a mobile home that had been pushed off its foundation and nearly into the road by flood waters was being prepared for demolition.
As the group returned to Mike’s SUV, a vehicle pulled up in front of the house next door. To the surprise and delight of the visitors, the occupant was Mary Alice Jewell, whom they came to know at MGCCC. There were hugs and tears as Mike and Pat greeted Mary Alice and she showed the group the damage to her home. She’ll need some new flooring, insulation, walls and trim, but said, “I feel blessed in a way. Things could have been much, much worse.”
Meeting local needs
Mother of Good Counsel Church came through the flooding unscathed thanks to its place on high ground, although the street in front of the structure is buckled where water pushed mud and rocks up through the sewer. Lori Helfrich, parish life director, said three parishioners lost their homes, while many others experienced heavy damage. The parish is currently providing housing for one family whose home was washed away and for an individual helping relatives who were left homeless. Working with Catholic Charities-Diocese of Lexington, the faith community has been securing donations to support the recovery efforts, along with hosting meetings and partnering with other area churches and community organizations to ensure funding and supplies get where they are needed most.
“The whole situation is just surreal,” Lori said, noting that much of her time has been spent making pastoral visits to those impacted by the flooding. She mentioned friends who escaped the rushing water through a second story window, but lost the farm equipment and crops that were their livelihood.
“This has been such a loss for people in so many ways,” Lori said. “It’s important to just be with them, let them share their stories, talk about their memories and assure them that they are not alone, their frustrations are valid and that they won’t be forgotten.”
Flood damage was minimal at Holy Cross Church, where Jerry Beetz served for many years. A service road acted as a dam, channeling water away from the building. The parish’s Facebook page reads, ‘When flood waters rise, we rise up as a community.’ The faith community jumped into action immediately following the flooding with requests for prayers, volunteers, cleaning supplies and fresh water. A laundry trailer has been on site since Aug. 13, providing locals with free services, a light meal and a listening ear.
Prayers from the friars
“I can’t help but get teary eyed when I think about the flooding,” said Maynard Tetreault of his time in the area. “I know what the people have been through over the years, and now for this to happen…But they are hearty and brave and nothing really daunts them. They will roll up their sleeves, now and moving forward, and, of course, my prayers will with them.”
“I’ve been thinking of and praying for the people every day,” said Mark, who was assigned to the region shortly after professing his solemn vows in 1992. As a licensed electrician, Mark often found himself “out in the hollers rewiring peoples’ trailers and things like that, where the poverty was tangible. Building relationships with the people was something that became very important to me and was very rewarding. They were very friendly, lived very simple lifestyles and not beyond their means. The way they approached life really reinforced the vows I had just made,” he said.
“I truly felt the presence and workings of the Holy Spirit in and through our spirit-filled, faith filled, gifted, welcoming, cheerful, caring and giving church family, whose love filled our parish hall and church with rich celebrations that united us in friendship and oneness, which flowed forth from us with a ready and willing hand to help those in need within the Hazard community and beyond, giving joyful witness to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy,” said Ed Gura, who spent 16 years as an ICU nurse at Hazard ARH Regional Health Center.
A prayer from Ed to parishioners was recently published in the MGCCC bulletin. It reads: “My heart is saddened over the devastating floods and loss of life and property that have come your way. My thoughts and prayers are fully with everyone during this painful time when so many are enduring suffering and hardships. In the darkness, Christ is our light, transforming the darkness into blessing and light as He continues blinding and healing our wounds and fashioning our salvation day by day, grace by grace.”
On the drive home from Eastern Kentucky, Pat said, “We’ll continue to hold the people there in our minds and our hearts and keep them in prayer. Just being there today, and especially being able to give Mary Alice a hug, means a lot. The work that Scott, Gerry and others are doing, knowing that the people trust in their efforts and knowing that they believe in the people, means so much.”
“I’m feeling overwhelmed and distraught at peoples’ experience. It’s just one house after another, and it doesn’t really make a difference if it was one or fifty. Peoples’ lives have been disrupted or destroyed,” Mike said. “Now, the question becomes ‘where do they go from here?’” The people have always suffered from being looked down upon by government agencies that don’t have an appreciation or understanding for the long history and culture that’s so different from typical Midwest culture. They need our support and prayers.”
Help for Eastern Kentucky
The Provincial Council approved a grant of $25,000 each to the Housing Development Alliance (HDA), Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky and Catholic Charities of Lexington to assist with relief from the recent flooding in Eastern Kentucky, where friars from St. John the Baptist Province ministered for many years,
Mike Chowning, pastor of Mother of Good Council Catholic Community in Hazard from 1993 to 2016, and Pat Riestenberg, who ministered there in a variety of roles for more than 20 years, traveled to the region on Sept. 2 to present the checks to representatives from HDA and the Foundation. Roger Lopez will present a check to Catholic Charities in the near future.