VOICES: I visited flood-ravaged Kentucky, and here’s how I’m hoping Dayton can help

As I drove through Breathitt County, Kentucky, on Tuesday, I saw something I’ll likely never forget: two people sitting on the cinderblocks where their home once stood.

The devastation following catastrophic flooding in Eastern Kentucky during the early morning hours of July 28 is almost impossible to describe. Imagine: homes and bridges washed away, 38 lives lost, people sleeping in tents to protect what they have left from looting, some going weeks now without water, not knowing when or how or if they will rebuild.

Like many of you, I reside in Ohio but my heart lies in Appalachia. I’ve been thinking of all of our shared mountain heritage in the Dayton region over the past two weeks since catastrophic floods ravaged Eastern Kentucky. I happened to be there when the floods came, and I’ve been back since on a reporting trip. I talked to people who have lost everything. And I saw the valiant work of volunteers pulling together to meet the unbelievable need.

I am writing simply to say: Our people back home need us now. We have to keep our eyes, hearts, hands, and dollars focused on Eastern Kentucky.

Sharon Lane, another Daytonian with strong Appalachian roots, felt the same. She made a call for donations and traveled back to see her family home and deliver what help she could.

“What I hope doesn’t happen is the relief effort to last another news cycle and these good people be forgotten,” Lane said. “We need to understand that this whole area will need good family, friends and neighbors for years to come. The devastation is unbelievable. Yet every now and then there is something beautiful that reminds us of just how beautiful Kentucky truly is. Appalachian people are rooted in their land, their soil. Their great, great grandpa’s oil lamp or grandma’s, great, great granny’s quilt, old photographs are the heartbreakers. These people are strong and resilient, please don’t forget them in their struggles to come, it will be years.”

On the quiet drive back to Dayton Tuesday, I thought of the invisible string linking the two regions. There have been waves of migration of people from Appalachia into Southwest Ohio for the past century, explained Nora Stanger, Coordinator of Appalachian Outreach at Sinclair Community College. They came for factory jobs in places like Cincinnati, Hamilton, Springfield, and Dayton, but never forgot their home.

“Some of the core values of the Appalachian heritage add to the pain of leaving our roots: self-reliance and pride, mixed with family solidarity tear at our hearts when we have to leave. But no matter what, the love of place, valuing the mountains and the land we are connected to makes ‘back home’ always a place we long for,” Stanger said.

Maybe you lived in Eastern Kentucky during the 1957 or 1984 floods. Or maybe you grew up in Ohio, raised by parents or grandparents who told you those stories and took you back to the mountains to visit cousins and aunts and uncles.

As of this month, I will have lived equal parts of my life in Dayton and in Hazard, Kentucky, my hometown. 18.5 years in each. Soon my time in the Midwest will be much longer than my years growing up in Appalachia. But I don’t know if it will ever eclipse it in significance. I love Dayton, and I love that it is part of the Appalachian story.

A motto of sorts has popped up in Eastern Kentucky in recent years: 606 Strong, referencing the area code of the region. I’m calling on the 937 to pour our money, resources, and time into the 606.

Let’s honor our heritage and give back to our people when they need it the most. If you are looking for a place to give, The Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky is a good place to start for both financial donations and information about volunteering in person. Visit their website at appalachianky.org.

A native of Hazard, Kentucky, Tracy Staley is a writer and communications professional in Dayton, Ohio.

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