After Kentucky floods, local pastor Brad Stevens becomes a lifeline

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

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As the waters rose last month, Brad Stevens received a flurry of calls.

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

“For about five hours the water was so high that you couldn’t do anything but sit back and wait and see what was going to stay, who was successful,” said Stevens, 44, a Church of God pastor. Worship Center. in Clay County.

The floods left behind millions of dollars in damage. Roads and bridges will have to be rebuilt. Hundreds of homes were damaged or destroyed. Town centers are decimated. But in the aftermath of the disaster, Stevens — a longtime Clay County resident — said the community came together to rebuild, a sign of the deep roots the neighbors share.

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

As soon as it was safe to do so, Stevens and a group of volunteers traveled from hollow to hollow to deliver food and water to families stuck 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 hard work, especially since cell service was wiped out.

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

In other parts of the region, communities held impromptu benefits to raise funds, such as a concert that became a fundraiser, with all proceeds going to flood victims.

One of the biggest challenges is reaching people in the most remote areas of the county. Highway 11, which connects many of these communities to the outside world, has been jammed with trucks full of stones to rebuild the roads. Others carry food, water and cleaning supplies, as well as donations.

Some communities are nearly impossible to reach, as all entry and exit paths have been washed away. So, one of Stevens’ many roles is to work with government officials to navigate the logistics of building roads and bridges.

Burley Sizemore Jr., 72, was born and raised in the area. Floodwaters carved a crater in its front driveway and destroyed a bridge – its only link to the main road. “It was nerve-wracking,” Sizemore said. “Besides all the pain you have to go through, it’s just unnerving. It’s 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, the driveway at Sizemore was filled and a temporary bridge had been installed. Burley Sizemore Jr. had feared his property would be overlooked, putting his family at risk. When the bridge was completed, he wept.

Brad Stevens predicts that the need for these kinds of repairs will remain high in the coming months, as thousands of people will need them. Soon, he predicts, he will have to collect and distribute air compressors, nail guns and lumber as people begin to repair their homes.

“Honestly, at this point, I think we’re at a point where, in terms of the water intake, the rapid response initial supply intake, we’re kind of going beyond that,” did he declare. “It’s going to take work and money to get [communities] restored. Whether it’s us or another group, that’s going to happen for a long time.

But Stevens and others know that no matter what, community members will be there for each other. In Clay County, Tim Parks — who normally serves as the director of tourism in Manchester, Ky. — has been scouring the county with supplies for days. “In Eastern Kentucky, we’ll do more with less,” Parks said. “It’s not about the money. Everyone puts their heart into it.

This spirit held so much hope, even though they know the devastation will take months or years to undo.

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

Stephanie Kuzydym contributed to this report.

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