Co-ops send help after floods ravage Eastern Kentucky

Two months after South Kentucky RECC handed out buckets and light bulbs at a member appreciation day drive-thru, many of those same consumer-members are driving back to the co-op to drop off donations for victims of massive flooding in Eastern Kentucky.

“Our membership and our cooperative family are a blessing,” said Robin Pendergrass, a supervisor at the co-op’s call center. “We are just so thankful for everybody.”

In a video at the co-op’s member appreciation day on June 8, Pendergrass explained that it was her favorite time of the year to step out from behind the scenes to meet face to face with co-op members. Now, she is letting members know that their generosity and compassion for flood survivors is personal for her. She is a native of Perry County where her relatives are literally digging out of mud, muck and debris.

Yet their focus is not on what they have lost.

“I am very blessed to say that my nephew survived,” Pendergrass says with a sob catching in her throat. “Oh my goodness, I’m sorry.”

Her nephew, Eric Watts, got caught up in surging floodwaters while trying to drive home to his wife and three children in Vicco, Kentucky, a tiny city that sits in a mountain valley. Waters from a tributary of the North Fork of the Kentucky River filled that valley when more than 10 inches of rain fell in under 48 hours in late July.

“It was chest deep inside his vehicle, and he had to swim out,” Pendergrass explained. “We’re just blessed he was physically able to fight the water and to get to safety.”

After managing to get his family to higher ground at his mother-in-law’s home, Watts returned to find his own home overtaken by the flash flood. He and his wife are now trying to clear the home of several feet of mud, armed with cleaning supplies donated by electric cooperative members.

“We got such a huge response from our employees and members,” said Morghan Blevins, a service center representative at South Kentucky RECC. “People were still bringing stuff in as we were loading up to deliver it.”

Blevins is a native of Knott County, where ten adults and four children died in the flash flooding and where some survivors are still trying to assess what can be salvaged and others are still trying to locate their homes.

“The amazing thing is the resilience of the mountains,” Blevins emphasized. “The people have pulled together like nothing that I have ever seen. People who have lost everything. Instead of dwelling on that or mourning that, they’re helping people two or three houses up the road who didn’t lose their home. They’re helping them clean up and salvage what they have. It’s just a testament to the people of the area and it just makes me proud to be able to say that that’s where I grew up, and that’s where I’m from.”

Blevins and Pendergrass are among dozens of electric cooperative employees coordinating relief efforts in the region.

Several Jackson Energy employees spent a day in Oneida, Kentucky helping restoration efforts and taking care of neighbors in Clay County.

“It was humbling to see just a glimpse of the damage to the roads that are still impassible, homes that are destroyed and the daily livelihoods that will never be the same,” said Lisa Baker, the co-op’s executive administrative assistant. “But the care and concern shown through the donations and people wanting to help was immeasurable.”

At its Paintsville office, Big Sandy RECC is inviting members to drop off items and the co-op will see that they are given to families in need. Licking Valley RECC has delivered supplies and encourages more donations in hard-hit Breathitt County. Kentucky Electric Cooperatives, the statewide association of co-ops, coordinates the Kentucky Rural Electric Disaster Fund which assists electric cooperative employees who have suffered any losses.

Meanwhile, Appalachia is focusing on survival.

“There is no time right now to mourn what you’ve lost or dwell on that,” Blevins said “You’ve just got to clean up.”