LEXINGTON, Ky. — Up until about a month ago, Brandy Neace’s one-year-old granddaughter would start every morning in a high chair with one eye on the cartoons on the TV in front of her and the other on grandma cooking her breakfast in the kitchen. When the food was ready, Neace would bring it over and sit with her granddaughter while she ate.
Breakfast was one part of Neace’s granddaughter’s daily routine.
That routine was broken about three weeks ago when historic floods destroyed their eastern Kentucky trailer home.
“There’s no way of telling someone the devastation you feel when your baby just wants normal, and you can’t give that to them,” Neace told The Tablet. “And she doesn’t know what’s happened, all she wants is her routine.”
Neace and her family were one of the thousands impacted by the storms that began July 26, swelling rivers and creeks throughout the eastern part of the state to unprecedented levels. To date, there are 38 deaths connected to the floods, with two people still missing.
The trailer home is in Breathitt County in the town of Jackson. Driving through the town, there’s a dirt lot filled with piles of debris. Other debris still hangs from trees or is lodged in the ground, and many people have belongings piled up outside of their homes as they sift through the wreckage and try to make sense of what happened and what to do next.
The lot where the Neace family trailer is located sits along the Kentucky River. Across from her home, a pickup truck is turned on its side, and a wooden shed is flipped upside down. Two doors down, a trailer that flipped over another home is on its side. At the other end of the park, there are camping tents covered by tarps set up near the road that neighbors are living in, not wanting to leave what’s left of their belongings and now inhabitable homes.
The Neaces’ trailer is technically intact on its same lot, but everything inside was ruined by the water, and the foundation of the trailer was destroyed, preventing them from going inside. A bunk bed frame was the only thing that was salvaged.
Without the trailer, Neace is staying on a friend’s property on higher ground, where she, her granddaughter, and some of her five kids (a few have relocated with friends) are living out of two camping tents, using a small generator for a modicum of power, cooking on a two-burner portable stove, and using an old freezer box as a cooler.
Compounding the hardship, a house Neace owned in the Perry County town of Hazard that was having work done on it was destroyed by the floods as well.
On top of that, Neace had a trailer ruined by floods last year. The money they received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and local donations for that home was put into the trailer that was destroyed last month. They had only recently finished renovations on it.
“Losing two trailers is hard, devastatingly hard, but I thought I had the house, and I didn’t. That’s three homes in two years,” Neace said. “I’m still angry, hurt, every emotion you can think of; I am that, but I know something is going to work out, and I’m thankful for that.”
Neace said after two floods, she doesn’t want to live in the same area of Jackson any longer, noting that her hope is to rebuild a house on higher ground on the Hazard property.
“I feel like it’s my only choice,” she said. “I don’t want to sound greedy, but we’re tired of loss.”
‘Tomorrow is for God’
Throughout Jackson, Hazard, and the other communities in each county, there are countless stories similar to Neace’s of unbelievable loss and shock but also hope that day-by-day things will get better and that eventually, they’ll rebuild — whether in the same location or elsewhere.
For many, though, funding is the biggest factor. More than 20% of people in both Breathitt County and Perry County live below the poverty line, according to the latest U.S. Census data. The population of Breathitt County is about 13,000, and Perry County’s is about 26,000.
Down the street from the Neaces’ trailer, the home of Joshua and Wilma Combs and their family of 10 is destroyed. The five-bedroom, three-bathroom home was flooded with about 10 feet of water in the garage and 4.5 feet of water throughout the inside on top of 2 to 3 inches of mud.
“Basically, it’s all gone except for some clothes,” Joshua said. “We lost all of the memories.”
The Tablet spoke with Joshua and Wilma while they were at the nearby Holy Cross Catholic Church doing laundry and getting a meal. Right now, they’re living out of a camper supplied by an employer of a family member as they figure out what their next move will be.
They, too, want to relocate after two years of floods. They just don’t know where and said it’s a “big worry” right now figuring out where to re-establish their family.
When asked how they were getting through this difficult time, both Joshua and Wilma immediately turned to their faith, with Joshua saying, “one day at a time and praying to God.”
Wilma added: “Today is for us, and tomorrow is for God. God is in tomorrow. That’s not for us yet. We have to focus on today. I know we’ll get through this.”
About 35 miles away in Perry County outside of Hazard, Ann Williams is staying at her daughter’s house. Her nearby home, which she described as her forever home that she moved into two years ago, is now completely gutted and getting ready to be rebuilt.
When the flooding began, Williams, her grandmother, and grandson were trapped in her grandmother’s house next door and rode out the flooding on top of the kitchen table.
“I was sitting there on her kitchen table watching her hinges on her back door and trying to figure out what my next step was going to be, and I’m thinking if [the water] gets halfway up on this table, I’m putting them somehow on top of these kitchen counters,” Williams said.
“I’m sitting there thinking God show me a sign that I’m doing what you want me to do and that you got this,” Williams told The Tablet. “And about 30 minutes later, … I looked over at grandma’s stove, and I could see the watermark, and it was going down, and I knew at that point we were going to be OK.”
When Williams saw afterward what was left of her home, she said she was “in shock,” and the sight is something “she’ll never recover from.” Her grandmother’s home was also destroyed.
Unlike Neace and the Combs, Williams doesn’t have any reservations about rebuilding her home in the same spot. Part of her confidence in staying put is because the area of the house had never flooded before. The other part of her confidence comes from the way her daughter rebuilt and recovered after a fire destroyed her home a few years back.
Witnessing her daughter’s perseverance gives Williams confidence that this too shall pass.
“We will return,” Williams said. “It will pass.”
She explained that her daughter lost her home in a fire in 2019, but she has since rebuilt.
“So my little trial and tribulation is going to pass too,” Williams said, “and we’re going to have a home to walk back into.”