Volume 58, Issue 6

“I was in Complete Awe of the Things I’ve Seen” KEA Member Margaret Henson was on the front lines of the Eastern Kentucky Floods

Margaret Henson, a school librarian and President of Breathitt County Education Association, saw the flood devastation first-hand and is helping those who lost everything pick up the shattered pieces.

Breathitt County Education Association President Margaret Henson, a librarian at Marie Roberts-Caney Elementary, with the school’s principal Jason Fugate.

Amid the scattered branches, shredded metal debris, overturned vehicles and mobile homes, homes torn from their foundations, and piles upon piles of ruined furniture and belongings that once filled people’s homes, stands the Marie Roberts-Caney Elementary school in Lost Creek, Kentucky.

In the immediate aftermath of the devastating floods that occurred on July 26, KEA member, Breathitt County Education Association president, and school librarian Margaret Henson wasn’t sure how to help. So, she did the one thing she has been doing for the last 24 years: she went to her school.

Set on a small hill above Troublesome Creek, the 270-student school was set to close this December. But today, and for every day since the rain and storms and flooding, this little public elementary school has become a cafeteria, clothing store, grocery, doctor’s office, community center—a lifeline—for the children and the families of Breathitt County.

“Everyone has mentioned our little school here. It’s a very close-knit community. The school itself is very close knit. We have 8 faculty here that lost everything. We have 53 kids from families who lost everything,” said Henson. “For some of the students and even parents, the school is a safety net. You see familiar faces here every day. Everyone has different needs so we were just doing whatever we could. Even if it was just listening to their story and giving them a hug.”

Some people were afraid or too proud to ask for help in the beginning, said Henson. “One woman who was here finally told us she could use a pair of shoes. And the more we talked to her the more we found out what she needed. She had lost her home and was sleeping in her car. But she didn’t want to take anything from somebody else. We’ve heard that so many times.”

The school staff is also suffering. Vanessa Baker, the school’s beloved secretary for more than 25 years, is still missing. School principal Jason Fugate was also feared lost when no one could reach him for four days. He had lost all communication before being airlifted to safety by helicopter.

Thankfully, after just a few days, every student in the school was accounted for. Jackie O’Neill, the school’s family resource center coordinater, made contact with every single student at the school—nearly 270 kids—and found out where they were.

Since that first day when Henson and others were doing and providing anything they could from the school building, Marie Roberts Elementary has transformed into a warehouse. It now provides a variety of needed cleaning products, as well as groceries, toiletries, water, and clothing.

In fact, tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of those supplies and direct financial aid has been provided by local KEA affiliates and individual members across the commonwealth. And with the generous help of NEA Member Benefits, KEA established a fund dedicated to providing financial relief to members directly affected by the floods.

Even Henson’s little school library proved an important resource. President Biden toured the devastated area and used her library to meet with students, victims and volunteers and to brief the press after declaring the flooding a national disaster, which brought much needed federal emergency resources into the damaged area.

“I was in complete awe of the things I’ve seen,” said Henson, who has seen her share of floods over the years. “I’ve never seen an outreach like this before. We will continue doing and providing whatever we can from our little school. That’s why public schools are so important. Our doors are always open for our kids and for our communities.”

Now that the flood waters have receded, many of the volunteers who came to help have gone. For instance, a group from Iowa traveled to Kentucky, set up a barbeque tent, and provided hot meals for weeks. But eventually they, too, went home.

A father and daughter pick out family essentials and groceries at Marie Roberts-Carney elementary in Lost Creek, KY.
The flood damage in Breathitt county devastated homes, businesses and lives.

What’s left is a mountain of supplies to help clean up the mess left by the floods and a mountain of paperwork for folks to do to try and get the money they need to put their homes and lives back together.

What’s needed most in the meantime is manpower, according to Henson. “People need crews to help them clean out and clean up their houses. Walls are molding and drywall and insulation needs to be ripped out. People need their homes pressure washed.”

By early August 448 homes in Breathitt County were determined complete losses and more than 500 were damaged. The numbers since then have surely increased. “If someone wants to help, getting dirty and doing hard work is what we need,” said Henson.

You can help fellow Kentuckians hit by flooding by contributing to the Team Eastern Kentucky Relief Fund or by volunteering through a number of organizations and agencies still working in the region. Any contribution of money or time, no matter how small, is much appreciated.