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After Kentucky's deadly floods, neighbors are stepping in to help one another

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

President Biden went to eastern Kentucky yesterday to see the damage from flash floods that raced through the mountains there and killed more than three dozen people. While visiting with families, Biden pledged federal help.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It's going to take a while to get through this. But I promise you, we're not leaving. The federal government and all its resources, we're not leaving. As long as it takes, we're going to be here.

FADEL: Many people still don't have power or running water. Some say government assistance has been scarce so far. But Justin Hicks from the Ohio Valley Resource says neighbors are stepping in to help one another.

JUSTIN HICKS, BYLINE: Over the past week, Havanna Thacker has transformed a historic high school in Carr Creek, Ky., into a supply depot. While her mother whips up trays of food in a tiny cafeteria, she stocks the gym with supplies that people bring in by the carload.

HAVANNA THACKER: Shoes go under. Men's clothes go on top. These are women's clothes.

HICKS: In the afternoons, she delivers it all up remote roads damaged by tiny streams that turned into raging rivers overnight.

THACKER: OK. Next, they walk over from the lot.

HICKS: People who stop into the old high school are surprised that Thacker has been managing this singlehandedly for days. There aren't state officials or FEMA representatives here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Have you had many volunteers to help you?

THACKER: No, ma'am.

HICKS: This is the nature of getting help to east Kentuckians. While officials focused on finding the dead, it was up to the living to help the living. Many say they've never seen a natural disaster like this. But what they lack in experience, they make up for in the willingness to help each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE STARTING)

HICKS: Thacker hops into a large pickup and starts out on steep, rocky, one-way road. It's quickly apparent why any disaster relief might miss people in these places, where directions are told with family histories, not GPS coordinates.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: As far as that one driveway...

THACKER: Where Uncle Lovell (ph) and Debbie (ph) used to be?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: No, the next one up. And then you're going to have to walk...

THACKER: So I was right. There are people living up there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

HICKS: Thacker's learned that sometimes you have to offer help two or three times before folks will accept it. It's not pride, but the belief that somehow, somewhere, someone else is probably worse off than you. Take Larry Combs, for instance. A day or two before, Combs told Thacker he was fine. But today, he invited her into his house. Until this point, he hadn't told her his living room wall had caved in from a mudslide last week. Sunlight, plants and soil pour in. And when Thacker learns Combs slept there the night before, she becomes stern.

THACKER: You're breathing in everything that's soaking up wet, everything that's coming in from outside inside.

LARRY COMBS: I know it's bad.

THACKER: There's no reason to be ashamed for any circumstance that you're in. And if we're not talking to each other and we're keeping everything to ourself, we're not going to get the help we need, OK? I love you.

COMBS: (Laughter).

THACKER: We're going to see how fine your other people up are in here, too.

HICKS: When we finally get back to the old high school, Thacker walks into the gym. And like a kid on Christmas morning, her tired eyes light up.

THACKER: Look at the food table. There's canned goods above and below. Hot dog.

HICKS: Just before shutting off the lights and heading home, Thacker takes a moment to reflect.

THACKER: It's been a long day. Strangers are becoming family and learning to be a strong foundation for each other when the roads and everything else is being washed out from underneath us.

HICKS: She'll be doing this for many more days to come.

For NPR News, I'm Justin Hicks in Hazard, Ky.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ANTLERS SONG, "HOTEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justin Hicks