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‘They have no way to get out until the bridges are rebuilt’

Berry Craig
09 Aug, 2022
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By BERRY CRAIG

AFT Local 1360

Jeff Wiggins and Jerald Adkins were heading for Breathitt County flood survivor Lewis Turner's place on Bowling Creek Road when they spotted a white hardhat resting on a flat rock in a little stream whose rushing flood waters had receded.

"Mr. Turner and his two sons, Lewis Jr. and Rolland, who live near each other, are members of IBEW Local 369, so Jeff and I thought it belonged to one of them," said Adkins, who owns Working Strategies 2, a Frankfort lobbying/consulting firm.

"They said it didn't. So we still wonder--did it belong to somebody who was lost in the flood? Somebody who was trying to help? I just took a photo of it, and we left it where it was."

Wiggins, state AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, and Adkins are back in the capital city after touring flood-ravaged eastern Kentucky counties in Wiggins' Ford SUV last Thursday and Friday. Essentially, the duo went on a fact-finding mission to see how organized labor could help survivors of the devastating floods that have claimed at least 37 lives, including a man near where the Turners live. 

Wiggins said the body remained lodged for three days in a tree surrounded by a tangle of flood-borne debris. “They couldn’t get to him and couldn’t remove the body until the coroner could get there and pronounce him dead.”  

It took the Samaritans two days to reach the Turners. They set out on Thursday, but Wiggins’s GPS led them to a dead end on a flooded road, where the pavement was crumbling away. Lacking cell phone service and unsure where to detour, they retreated to their hotel in London and phoned Turner.

“We didn’t want to drive those roads at night,” Adkins said.

Turner rerouted them through Buckhorn and they arrived on Friday. 

Meanwhile, thousands of people remain homeless and hundreds of homes, businesses and public buildings have been damaged or destroyed. (Union aid is rolling in from across Kentucky and the country.)

President Joe Biden visited the region on Monday. He promised to do all he can to funnel federal help to the flood zone, according to the Washington Post. “I promise you, if it’s legal, we’ll do it, and if it’s not legal, we’ll figure out how to change the law,” he vowed in a conference with Gov. Andy Beshear and other officials.

Adkins said he and Wiggins especially sought out the Turners and other union families to provide them aid through a special Union Member Disaster Relief Fund that was created after a series of deadly and devastating tornadoes roared through Mayfield, Dawson Springs and other western Kentucky communities last Dec. 10. The fund, co-sponsored by the state AFL-CIO, Greater Louisville Central Labor Council and United Way of Kentucky, is also being used to help flood victims at the other end of the state.

Wiggins and Adkins handed the Turners Visa gift cards. "By the time we got there, they were able to get out. If they hadn't been, we'd have brought them the supplies they needed."

While the hardhat was the most evocative image Adkins captured on his iPhone, he also managed a photo of a solitary pig strolling around a muddy clearing. It was one of two porkers that belonged to a neighbor of  the Turners. "They had been in a pen in a barn, which the flood wiped out," Adkins said. "Mr. Turner said they saw the pigs float past. Two days later, they came back home. 

"They're just roaming in the holler. The neighbors don't have the materials to build a pen or a barn."

Wiggins also said a tree in Lewis Sr.’s yard likely saved his house. “His shed was washed right up against the tree. If it hadn’t been there, the shed would have smashed his house.”   

Wiggins, from Reidland, a Paducah suburb, and Adkins traveled extensively in western Kentucky surveying the tornado damage. 

"The destruction and devastation is very similar in western and eastern Kentucky," Adkins said. "But what makes it worse in eastern Kentucky is the infrastructure damage. You've got roadways where half the pavement is gone in some places and the whole pavement is gone in other places. Fifty highway bridges have been destroyed, but there are hundreds of private bridges that go across creeks to people's houses.

"Even if their cars survived the flood, they have no way to get out until the bridges are rebuilt."