The foundation for great teamwork in eastern Kentucky following the catastrophic flooding – and what I feel is at the heart of every successful team – is open lines of communication.
Flood watches and warnings are commonplace in eastern Kentucky. Those who live in flood prone areas often take precautionary measures, just in case, such as moving their vehicle to higher ground and monitoring the rise of the creek. The flooding that occurred on July 28 came unbelievably quick, in the middle of the night, and was worse than had ever been experienced in most locals’ lifetimes.
Community members, many whose homes had never flooded, were woken up by the sound of water rushing into and sweeping away their homes. Some had to climb onto their rooftops to wait in the rain to be rescued the following morning.
I was at the Kentucky Association of School Administrators Conference in Louisville on the night the flood hit. Most of us woke up to text messages that next morning that included unimaginable photos of our devastated communities. I texted my staff and we immediately returned home to assess the situation and needs of staff and families.
Luckily, none of Floyd County’s schools were damaged. I called a district team meeting to check on staff, assess the situation and respond. Principals, Family Resource Youth Service Center (FRYSC) staff and others at the school level were already communicating, checking on one another and beginning to call and make their way to homes of students and families in their jurisdictions.
Together, we started tracking the needs in each area, deciding which schools needed to be open for hot meals, showers, as clothing centers, a place to rest, recharge batteries, brush teeth, pick up cleaning supplies and provide access to school counselors. Our schools have always been local hubs for our communities, but now they were serving as community centers.
Sign-up sheets were posted to staff schools seven-days-a-week and were quickly filled by employees who were eager to pitch in and help. School counselors and family resource directors were with displaced families from day one at the local community center and rode in boats to take food, books and activities to the state park for anyone staying at the lodge or campground. Taking care of one another is what we do best!
Having strong lines of communication is important to me and being intentional about building these networks in my first year as superintendent set us up for success during this tragic time. Those who know me would say that I speak clearly, inquire curiously and share frequently. I was eager to hear what ideas staff had based on their situational awareness and the feedback they had gotten from families.
We had been operating our summer feeding program for those under age 18 before the flood and our nutrition director immediately worked to ensure that we could begin feeding adults in addition to children. He and members of a church also worked with Tyson to secure 45,000 pounds of meat that was provided to families with the help of volunteers.
As the water receded and people started to dig out, clean up and salvage what they could, we knew they wouldn’t stop working to come to the schools for a meal. Some had even lost their vehicles, so we started taking food out to the areas that were hit hardest. Our cooks and bus drivers had prepared and delivered meals during the COVID-19 pandemic, so they were well-prepared. Food service teams prepared and served nearly 5,000 hot meals each day out of nine school cafeterias. Volunteer groups also helped deliver meals on ATVs.
I was moved by the dedication of our school groups who went to the community center to do activities with displaced children and our sports and academic teams from across the county who mobilized in the hardest hit regions to help shovel mud, muck homes and unload trucks of supplies that started arriving from all around the state. Hardin County, Russell Independent and others bought and donated gift cards to FRYSCs to help with the immediate needs of local families.
Connection drives collaboration, promotes knowledge sharing and builds trust. Our state and county elected officials, school board members, law enforcement, first responders and so many others have been instrumental in the relief efforts.
The local sheriff secured mobile washer and dryer units for our schools and Pikeville Independent, Johnson County and Lawrence County superintendents brought a truck load of detergent to donate for families to use on site. Save the Children, Trace Creek Construction and local co-ops like the Kentucky Educational Development Corporation have delivered items such as campers and pallets of water for families.
Supportive lines of communication also came from across counties with the support of the state, such as the weekly Superintendent Huddle, which was started by the Kentucky Department of Education following the tornado catastrophe in western Kentucky. Weekly check-ins to report what’s going on and share how others can assist has been a huge windfall.
Eastern region superintendents also communicate, brainstorm and collaborate with one another often. Knott County will use one of our gyms for volleyball. We have offered to enroll students until other districts are able to open and receive them back. We also will be busing kids from the state park in Floyd County to county lines to help them get to and from schools in their neighboring home counties each day as needed.
Floyd County is offering surplus desks, devices, books, tables, etc. to districts that had schools damaged. We have sent a technology team to Letcher County and a maintenance team to Knott County to assist with their recovery. We know no borders and are glad to get to lend a helping hand to our neighbors. Our passion for students and families all across eastern Kentucky unites us all.
We decided to push the first day of school back two weeks in Floyd County so that staff could focus on working to serve families and help meet the basic needs of staff, students and families first. A good Samaritan provided a car for a custodian who had lost his in the flood and a board member provided a generous monetary donation to every displaced member of our staff on opening day. The county judge and magistrates worked hard to get roads repaired for bus travel and we started hearing from families that they looked forward to students spending their days in school so that adults could work through FEMA processes and focus on beginning to rebuild.
I know from my more than 30 years of experience in education that when students are in school, we are able to better meet their needs. Students receive two meals and a snack each day, there are nurses and counselors on site and a whole team of people who love and want to serve them.
All students were provided with a device, backpack, and school supplies this year. I saw the joy at open houses and on the first day of school with my own eyes. Students were overwhelmingly glad to be back and are not afraid to tell us what they need. One student shared that they didn’t have a refrigerator at home and a donation was arranged and delivered to the family.
FRYSC directors will continue to meet needs – washer and dryer units are still available, showers are still available, this is ongoing – and they have met to begin planning for the long term needs of the community. Families will need basic household items, furniture, mattresses, bedding, towels, and our staff is working with churches and others to get donations. We are grateful to groups like Samaritan’s Feet, who continue to show up to distribute shoes and other needed items. As we rebuild, my door is open to ideas, partnerships and opportunities for collaboration.
Our county and region are united in the effort to rebuild and move forward together. Teamwork and continuous communication remain essential in our ability to move mountains for students and families.
Anna Shepherd has been superintendent of Floyd County Schools since 2021.