As floodwaters began to rapidly invade his community on July 28, Jamie Fugate found himself about three hours away and received panicked phone calls.
For Fugate, a Perry County principal, the Kentucky Association of School Administrators (KASA) conference in Louisville ended abruptly and earlier than expected.
“My wife called me around 2 am. She said there was water around our house. Then she called about 15 minutes later and she said it was our house,” said Fugate, principal of Robinson Elementary. “We had to save my family from a second story window.”
Fugate’s house has now been completely stripped and his school is considered a total loss.
Fugate’s story and that of others in eastern Kentucky school districts during the floods shows the courage and resilience that part of the state has long been known for. Far from major cities and resources, and deep in the mountains of coal country, many Eastern Kentucky residents have learned to rely on themselves and each other. Families, communities and schools have come together to survive.
In another Perry County community, Kylie Napier, a student at Buckhorn School (Perry County), lost her home that night.
“We stayed near (our property) for about 24 hours. It was still raining and we were trying to get out,” she said.
She was reunited with her father – who was looking for her – and safety.
“The water finally subsided and my father rode our cry, miles away, to pick me up. Then we came out. We were climbing mudslides, waving at people…everyone was trying to get out. There was no way out of there,” Napier said.
Courtney Hall, a 2nd grade teacher at Robinson Elementary, who spoke with Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason E. Glass during his visit to eastern Kentucky school districts Aug. 30-31 , said she was not focused on the damage to the school building where she teaches, but rather on the families and students she serves.
“The first thing I thought when I saw (the building) was ‘What about our children?’ We have so many children who live on the banks so I knew if it got that high in school then we had homeless children,” she said.
Judy Eversole, Family Resource Center/Youth Services Coordinator at Buckhorn School, continued to serve her buildingless community. She started by focusing on immediate needs, such as clothing, food and hygiene products.
She has now turned to long-term needs, striving to establish stability in the lives of her students.
“I still have a lot of families that need a lot of work, like in their house. And that’s going to be my next goal,” she said.
The flood recovery effort in Perry County is expected to take years. When Hall left the school building in May, she said she couldn’t imagine the scene she had returned to after the July floods.
An educator like generations of her family before her, Hall had planned to inherit a classroom from her aunt, who retired after four decades of service in Perry County.
“Mud up to my knees, everything in my class was knocked down, gone. We dug in the mud trying to get pictures, whatever,” she said. “I graduated 8th grade there, I taught there, I grew up in that building. To see it full of mud and everything you worked for and everything the people you like worked, underwater… it was heartbreaking.
Perry County Superintendent Jonathan Jett aimed to give students some sense of normalcy at school, but with damage to facilities he was unsure how to go about it.
Jett said a district manager had floated the idea of using the old AB Combs Elementary campus, a building that had been empty for half a decade after the schools consolidated. The building was once the largest elementary school in Perry County and housed over 700 students.
“We went over there, walked around the building, looked at things. I said, “That might work out well,” Jett said.
However, the school needed repairs before it could be used.
“We had volunteers, our classified personnel… came and worked even when there was no need. … It was so important to keep everyone together, we would have done anything,” Hall said.
One wing of the school is painted blue, for Robinson. The other is painted purple, for Buckhorn. The building opened for the new school year on Tuesday, September 6, nearly a month after the district’s scheduled start date of August 10.
“It could have been so easy for Superintendent Jett to say, ‘You students go here, the rest go here,’ but no. … He took the money and the time to build here, to redo it, to help us and to unite us,” said Dalton Day, a senior at Buckhorn School. “The building may be different, but we are together.”
While Hall’s inherited classroom at Robinson Elementary is unusable due to flood damage, she inherited a classroom in the AB Combs building.
“My aunt came over to help me decorate and she said, ‘You know this is your grandfather’s room, don’t you?’ and she asked me if I had chosen it. “No, it’s just a major coincidence,” Hall said. “To say that the room I’m in was my grandfather’s room. …
“He taught for almost 40 years in the county,” she said. “He ended his career here.
Emily Amis, a senior at Buckhorn School, had been looking forward to it last year.
“It means a lot to be here together in this building. This is my school, our school. … We are a family. It means everything. Some of us have been together since 3rd grade, kindergarten, preschool” “I couldn’t have made it anywhere else, especially since it was my senior year, my senior year. That means everything.”
For Hall, a building or an installation does not make a school.
“I always say it’s a public school, but really it’s a community school,” Hall said. “It’s really about community.”
Although schools have had a tough time preparing for this school year, leaders say their hard work has paid off.
“To hug these kids, give them a fist bump or shake their hand when they get off the bus, it was worth it,” said Buckhorn School principal Tim Wooton, who was at the conference in Louisville with Fugate. when the flood happened.
District leaders plan to use the AB Combs campus for the remainder of the school year. As cleanup and rebuilding work continues, they hope to find a long-term solution to deal with the schools’ losses. For now, however, the schools are making a new home for their students.
“It’s been tough, but we have to move on,” Fugate said. “We rolled up our sleeves and made this building a home.
“We move forward.”