Denny "White Rat" Roberts, left, and Brad Stevens yell over a crevasse created by recent flooding to homeowners on the other side in Panco, Ky. Roberts and Stevens were reaching out to families stuck on their properties to see if there was anything they could do to help. (Photos by Jessica Tezak for The Washington Post)

After the Kentucky floods, a local pastor becomes a lifeline

4 min

PANCO, Ky. — As the waters rose last month, Brad Stevens got a flurry of calls.

His congregants were trapped, desperate for help. Unprecedented rains had caused catastrophic flooding across eastern Kentucky, washing away homes, roads and bridges. At least 37 people died, according to Gov. Andy Beshear (D). Many more have been trapped or left without access to food and water.

“For about five hours the water was so high that you couldn’t do anything except sit back, wait and see what was going to be left behind, who made it through,” said Stevens, 44, pastor of the Church of God Worship Center in Clay County.

The flooding left behind millions of dollars in damage. Roads and bridges will need to be rebuilt. Hundreds of houses have been damaged or destroyed. Town centers are decimated. But in the aftermath of the disaster, Stevens — a lifelong resident of Clay County — said the community has come together to rebuild, a sign of the deep roots neighbors share.

“Small towns are small towns,” Stevens said. “When your back’s against the wall, it’s kind of like enemies become friends and all bets are off.”

As soon as they could safely do so, Stevens and a group of volunteers traveled from hollow to hollow to deliver food and water to the families trapped in their homes. Stevens said their group came into contact with about 50 people on their first day out; all were trapped on their properties. It was tough work, especially since cell service was wiped out.

Now, Stevens and others are turning their focus from rescue to recovery. His church has become a hub for food, water and other donations, as well as an organizing center.

In other parts of the region, communities hosted impromptu benefits to raise money, like a concert that became a fundraiser, with all proceeds going to flood victims.

One of the largest challenges is reaching people in more remote parts of the county. Highway 11, which connects many of these communities to the outside world, has been jammed full of trucks packed with rock for rebuilding roads. Others tote food, water and cleaning supplies, along with donations.

Some communities are nearly impossible to reach, since all paths in and out have been washed out. So one of Stevens’s many roles is working with government officials to navigate the logistics of road and bridge building.

Burley Sizemore Jr., 72, was born and raised in the area. Floodwaters carved out a crater in his front driveway and destroyed a bridge — his only link to the main road. “It’s been nerve-racking,” Sizemore said. “Besides all the pain you have to go through, it’s just flat nerve-racking. This is the worst I’ve ever seen this place in my life.”

With no other options, the Sizemore family — including Junior’s partner, Ruthanne Sizemore, 71, and their son — texted Stevens for help last week. A few days later, he came with volunteers and tons of rocks given to him by the county. And together, they set to work rebuilding the bridge.

By the end of Friday, Burley Sizemore Jr.’s driveway was filled in and a temporary bridge had been installed. Sizemore had feared that his property would be forgotten, imperiling his family. When the bridge was completed, he wept.

Stevens predicts the need for these kinds of repairs will remain high in the months ahead, as thousands of people are in need. Soon, he predicts, he’ll need to gather and distribute air compressors, nail guns and lumber as people began to repair their homes.

“Honestly, at this point, I think we are at a place to where, as far as taking water, taking initial rapid-response supplies, we are sort of getting beyond that,” he said. “It’s going to take work and money to get [communities] restored. Whether it’s us or another group, that’s what’s going to be happening for a long time.”

But Stevens and others know that no matter what, community members will be here for one another. In Clay County, Tim Parks — who normally serves as the tourism director for Manchester, Ky. — has been traveling the county with supplies for days. “In eastern Kentucky, we’ll make more with less,” Parks said. “It ain’t about the money. Everybody’s heart’s in it.”

That spirit has kept so many hopeful, even as they know the devastation will take months or years to repair.

“This community is full of people who just want to help,” Stevens said. “Everybody is doing something different. It’s not like we got together and planned that. That’s why it’s so amazing.”

Stephanie Kuzydym contributed to this report.