Eight-year-old Rachael Parks stepped gingerly over the flood debris between her home and the creek in Buckhorn, Kentucky, surveying the wreckage: pieces of their neighbors’ homes, her family’s trampoline, twisted and tangled, a bright pink BB gun her mom warned her that, no, she can’t pick up.
“It’s probably got all kinds of bacteria,” she said.
Two weeks before, unprecedented rainfall swelled this creek into a raging river. Rachael spent a harrowing night in the car with mom, dad and older brother. They parked on a hill and waited as the water rose over their whole neighborhood, terrified that the massive dam holding back Buckhorn Lake would burst.
“It was really sad, scary and overwhelming,” Rachael said.
The Parks’ home got four feet of water, and they plan to rebuild. But for now, they’re living in their driveway in a borrowed camping trailer.
The guts of the house are in a pile as tall as a person in the yard.
Like many kids in flood-impacted areas, Rachael gets scared now every time it rains. That’s an emotion her mother, Kayla Parks, isn’t used to seeing in her daughter— a girl who picks up frogs, and once held a python at the hardware store.
“She’s not afraid of anything,” Parks said.
Rachael said she’s antsy for school to start so she can see her friends again and make sure they’re OK.
Kayla is an instructional assistant at her daughter’s school. She has mixed emotions about school starting again, since for her, it also means a return to work
“I’m just dreading trying to get ready for work in a little tiny space, and just being away from here. I just feel like there’s so much to do,” she said.
In addition to working full-time and being a mom, Parks had planned to start her associate’s degree online. The program started this month, but Parks doesn’t even have running water now, let alone Wi-Fi.
She’s in touch with the college about her situation, but worried about finding time for school, now that she’s also rebuilding their home.
“I’m hoping I can stick with it,” she said.
Because the area sustained so much damage, most school districts had to push the first day back while they repair flooded facilities and meet the immediate needs of families who have been left homeless.
Meanwhile, many educators are anxious for a return to normalcy.
‘We go feed them babies’
In Letcher County Public Schools, the start of the school year is on hold indefinitely.
More than 1,200 families lost their homes in Letcher County alone. Six of the district’s buildings flooded, including the central office and three schools that got eight feet of water. Two school employees died.
The facilities that went unscathed are serving as relief centers.
In the kitchen at Letcher Elementary and Middle School, Sherry Brown is pulling another 16-hour shift. She is the cafeteria manager at this mountain school, but now, her small staff and a couple volunteers are cooking for the entire community.
Volunteers take meals by truck and ATV into hollers that are isolated now behind washed out roads. In some areas, volunteers have brought supplies to families by horseback.
“We go feed them babies,” Brown said, taking a moment at her desk. She was crowded-in by hundreds of boxes of food and supplies, all donated. Rooms and hallways were piled with donations too: clothes, cleaning supplies, snacks.
Letcher Elementary and Middle School Principal Jennifer Couch said some of the volunteers could be working on rebuilding their own homes, but instead they’re here, helping others.
“Honestly, it’s not that the community is destroyed, because right now I think it’s bigger and better than it’s ever been,” Couch said.
A need for normalcy
Several miles away, in neighboring Knott County, school superintendent Brent Hoover was battling spotty Wi-Fi, trying to connect to a web call with the state Department of Education.
Moments before, Hoover returned from the funeral service of a high school student. Aaron Crawford was a rising junior, who was helping friends clean flood debris out of a home when he fell ill and later died.
“I have out there in my car now, I have eight obituary cards. I’ve attended eight funerals in six days,” Hoover said.
At least 39 people are confirmed dead as a result of the flooding, including several children.
Asked how he’s doing, Hoover replied quickly, “I’m OK.” But later, while listening in on the web call, Hoover inhaled sharply and shut his eyes tight as if in pain.
“These days are just a bit tough,” he said, and described the funeral of Knott County second grader Maddison Noble, who died in the flood with her three younger siblings.
Hoover is anxious for students to be back in the classroom, so that kids have some semblance of normalcy.
“It is very important for me to get back in and have a normal school year,” Hoover said.
“Normal” has been hard to come by these last three years, in any school system, as districts grapple with the turbulence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Knott County Schools’ new tentative start date is Sept. 19, more than a month after the original first day of school.
Before that, the district’s three flooded buildings have to be cleaned, sewer systems have to be repaired, and buses have to be rerouted to avoid washed out roads to pick up students scattered throughout the region.
Long term, Hoover is worried about a decline in enrollment, which would take a financial toll on this district of just 2,000 students.
Down the road at Hindman Elementary, workers got the lights on for the first time since the flood. Pre-K teacher Natasha Moore got a look at her classroom, which was stripped bare, down to the black mastic where the floor tiles used to be.
On the night of the flood, Moore was in the classroom until 9:30 p.m. hanging new teal curtains in the windows ahead of the first day of school. Before she left, she grabbed a stuffed animal to take home and put in the wash: a plush toy dog the class named Peaches. Now it’s all she has left of her materials.
“I’m hurt because this was their safe space,” Moore said, holding back tears. “I don’t know what they’re facing at home now, and they don’t have school to go to.”
After the flood, Moore went through her roster and made contact with all of her students and their families. Many faced economic challenges before the disaster, and now don’t have homes.
Moore says she can build back her cozy classroom.
“But it hurts not having it now, because I know they need it more than ever,” she said.
At Emmalena Elementary in Knott County, Kimberly Mosley and her fourth grade daughter Tinsley helped unload donations.
Nearby, empty lots and concrete foundations were all that was left of some students’ homes. One of them belongs to the Noble family, who lost four children when flood water swept them from their parents’ grasp.
Mosley was second-grader Maddison Noble’s teacher. She and her colleagues are coping by throwing themselves into relief efforts.
“And now when school starts back it’s going to be another hit, when you start having empty seats in your classroom,” she said.
The school plans to bring in grief counselors for the staff and students during the first week of school. But Mosley said she thinks the school will need a permanent, full-time mental health professional on site.
“If there was ever a need for a full-time counselor in every school—situations like this we’re going to need a full-time counselor,” she said. “It’s going to be hard for a while.”
Tinsley propped open the door as volunteers debated how to get a donated mattress into the gym. The nine-year-old has stayed busy volunteering at the school, making sandwiches, organizing donations and showing other kids to the toy section.
She’s looking forward to when she’ll be back in this building with all of her classmates once school starts.
“I’m kinda sad it got pushed back, but I know why it had to be pushed back,” she said.
She’s got more than a month to wait.