Opinion: Appalachia – Resourceful, resilient and independent

On Friday, I went with my work family to one of the many flood-ravaged communities to try to contribute what little we could. Seeing the devastation in person, even a week after the floods, was startling. No matter how many photos you see, you are not prepared for vehicles lodged nose first in the banks. You’re not ready for newer brick homes that have a direct line of sight into the back yard because they’re completely gutted. You’re not ready to see desperate business owners outside their stores looking completely hopeless, helpless and exhausted. You’re not ready to see lonely houses that dot the landscape across the river as their only access bridge is crumbling in the water below, or to see discarded church pews like matches in a pile in the parking lot. It was a lot to take in… people’s lives lay in a muddy heap beside the road, the smell of dirt and mud and mold and mildew. My emotions swayed between tears and anxiety as I gripped the steering wheel harder to navigate the mountain roads among a caravan of like-minded strangers all heading in the same direction for the same purpose. Car tags read Pennsylvania, New York, Tennessee, Indiana, and all counties in Kentucky. Trucks carried trailers full of supplies.

I arrived at the Missionary Baptist Church, and the assembly lines worked together effortlessly to assemble boxes of items. National Guard troops were on hand to unload the two entire U-Haul trucks filled to the brim with items from an Amazon wish list. There were two locations in town where food, cleaning supplies, first aid supplies, diapers, boots, buckets, water and other essentials were distributed.

The first visitor I saw, a man on a motorbike who appeared to be in his early 40s, needed first aid supplies for injuries he had sustained while cleaning his house. He asked for gauze and neosporin. We tried to give him a first aid kit, but he didn’t want one. He just wanted a roll of gauze and some Neosporin. He had a cut on his foot and I insisted that he take a box of waterproof bandages. We tried to give him food, cleaning supplies, rags, etc. but he did not accept. He only took the bare minimum he needed. Another older faller came and needed “washing powders” (laundry detergent for all non-Appalachians). He took a small bottle and went out. Again, we tried to force supplies on him, but he wouldn’t take anything another person might need. He finally admitted he “could use trash bags” and took some from one of the many rolls.

While we were there, it seemed like more people were donating supplies than they were receiving. A car pulled up with pre-prepared lunches for the volunteers. Another person dropped off a load of ventilators, pillows, water and hygiene items. The gentleman who picked up the Neosporin and gauze came over to give us a $25 gas card for our trip home. There was someone giving tetanus shots to the volunteers and another handing out packets of IV fluid.

Later we moved into the residence of an elderly lady and that’s where my heart really broke – a lady with a lifetime of memories, all destroyed by the swift and lovely flood waters. It was absolutely overwhelming for me, a stranger and a viewer. I can’t even imagine how she felt when the brown water rose and overtook almost everything she had. From the porch, the strong smell of mold attacked your sinuses. Entering without a mask would be unwise. Flies, mosquitoes and gnats took advantage of the heat and humidity to reproduce and swarm. To make matters worse there was no sun in the back rooms and your eyes had no light to contrast the black mud which made it very hard to see.

Some of the strongest members of the team brought out the couch and bigger furniture. Everything was so much heavier because of the soaked mud. We formed an assembly line to move the medium-sized items and stack them outside. Then everything else just had to be shoveled out and thrown into the contractors’ bags. Wet books, magazines, clothes… You couldn’t fill a bag 1/4 full or it would be too heavy to move. I could hear the owner say things like, “Can you get the kids’ drawings?” and “It was my husbands.” She told us she went out with only the pajamas she was wearing. As we waded through mud and mud, we could see clothes, medicine, pet food, underwear…decades of his family history and all his essentials today …disappeared in a wave in the middle of the night.

She didn’t have flood insurance and she’s too old to start over. I can’t imagine her ever living in that house again because I’m sure she’ll probably end up doomed. She had a son and a daughter with her, so she is lucky in that regard. She was also lucky to have walked away at all. At least 3 dozen people didn’t have that luxury.

We did what we could for her until it was beyond our reach. We needed more shovels and better lighting. The National Guard would be there shortly, so we backed off. I was completely overwhelmed. We had a whole team and it was one house and we did very little to help him. How many other houses were damaged or destroyed? The cleaning process will take years.

I know this is incredibly long and thanks for going this far because it all makes sense. For as long as I can remember, I have encountered prejudice simply because of where my ancestors chose to settle. During my freshman year of college, a professor told me that I lived in “the third world of the United States”. In my career, I’ve seen co-workers whisper to each other before looking at me and saying, “Well, you know, they ARE the heart of App-ah-lay-shuh!” Or, they would speak to me with pity in their voices and say things like, “It must be really hard to work in this field because of all the…you know…challenges”. I had to fight tooth and nail for opportunities because the powers that be thought we were too ignorant or poor or lazy or “insert any derogatory word you want here” to run the ‘x’ program. We always had to do twice the work, twice the pace and twice the quality to prove ourselves. But we did! We’ve done it time and time again, because we’re Appalachians and that’s what Appalachians do.

People have lost all humanity. People from the “outside” saying East Kyians get what they voted for, as if Mother Nature was specifically targeting people who voted Mitch McConnell or Rand Paul. When I was there on Friday, I assure you there were a lot of curators whose house was spared. Meanwhile, Whitesburg, one of the most progressive towns in eastern Kentucky, was wiped out. Natural disasters don’t have a political party and they don’t choose where to land.

Other people asked “Why the hell do they live so close to the river in the first place?” These people obviously do not know the topography of the region. You have mountains and you have very narrow valleys. When our ancestors settled here, they settled in the valleys where water and game were easily accessible and the soil was rich. If there were miles and miles of plains available, of course…we could live far enough from the rivers where we couldn’t be affected. However, this is not how our region operates. Look at a map. Take a geography class. Open a 5th grade world civic book, to cry out loud!

Then there are the “It’s just a bunch of rednecks in mobile homes” comments. This one may be the worst of the worst. Manufactured homes are plentiful in the area due to the terrain I guess. They can be easily placed in the many cries of Appalachia. Placing a trailer or modular home in a cozy little crevice between two mountains is much easier than building a house from scratch. My grandmother lived in a trailer. It was a 1973 model and I suspect she bought it brand new. She lived in my garden, just in front of my house. I lived in that same trailer right after college. In fact, all three of my brothers have lived in mobile homes at one time or another. Now one brother is a nationally known photographer, the other is an engineer and is absolutely the hardest working man I know, and the other is retired from Toyota with a pretty good hustle in real estate. We all got up by the bootstraps and did pretty well. That’s what people in Appalachia do. They are resourceful and resilient. They can make a great Sunday dinner from what’s growing in the garden, and they can help you fix a broken-down Ford truck from leftover parts in the garage…because that’s exactly what they do.

I’ve seen so much ugliness come out in the comments online when discussing this flood because it’s another opportunity for collective prejudice and bigotry to come out. After all, mountain prejudice is the last remaining form of socially acceptable prejudice. Do you think I’m wrong? Take any of the controversial flood headlines or political cartoons you’ve seen lately and replace “Appalachia” with any class of oppressed people who have suffered prejudice (elderly, Latino, Islamic, African- American, LQBTQ+, etc.). Now, would that same cartoon or headline be published in the newspaper? Unequivocally, the answer is no. We would all be absolutely mortified if someone had done such a thing, as we should be. But why (for God’s sake, someone tell me why) can we say what we want about Appalachia? The Appalachian people I know work, care, love, give and protect harder than any other group of people I know. They can listen to you call us “ignorant” and “hicks” and then when YOUR town is ravaged by wildfires and hurricanes, we’ll be the first to pray for you and send you supplies so you don’t. you don’t give up. We rise and conquer. And after conquering, we prepare a big pot of soup beans and serve it with chow-chow and fried potatoes with fresh tomatoes and onions from the garden and invite all our friends and family to come and enjoy of our generosity. We’re tough and independent, and after you knock us down, we’ll get back up and give you the shirt if yours is ragged and torn…because that’s just who we are! And there’s no one else I’d rather be.

About Wanda Reilly

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