After flooding, a Kentucky church offers shelter alongside prayers

Photo for The Washington Post by Arden S. Barnes
Cots line the sides of the sanctuary at Gospel Light Baptist Church in Hazard, Ky., as Chris Fugate, the congregation’s pastor, addresses those gathered Sunday.

HAZARD, Ky. – For a few minutes Sunday morning, Karen Daugherty got a breath of normalcy.

Daugherty joined a group of churchgoers for a service at Gospel Light Baptist Church in Hazard, Ky. She was nearly 20 miles and a county over from where her home, in the community of Watts, had been destroyed by floodwaters that trapped her family for days.

“It was very refreshing just to be able to be there because I was raised Pentecostal and I know it was only by the grace of God that we’re still here together,” Daugherty said.

Photo for The Washington Post by Arden S. Barnes
Karen Daugherty puts a hand to her head during a service at Gospel Light Baptist Church on Sunday. She is staying with her family in the church, which has been set up as a shelter.

Sunday morning was probably a respite for many in Hazard and surrounding areas that have been hit hard by devastating flooding. Several churches had their first services since last week’s record-breaking rains deluged eastern Kentucky.

The typically gentle streams that cut through narrow valleys between the region’s mountains turned into roaring rivers in a matter of hours late Wednesday night. Sections of some creek-side communities were swept away, leaving behind only the foundations of houses.

At least 28 people have been killed, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear said Sunday, and hundreds across the region have been displaced. Beshear said he expected the death toll to rise.

Just before the 11 a.m. service at Gospel Light Baptist on Sunday, more than a dozen rows of blue chairs were lined up for churchgoers in the center of the sanctuary. The walls of the room were lined with green cots, most of which covered in pillows, quilts and children’s toys. The few unoccupied cots bared the bright logo of the American Red Cross.

Photo for The Washington Post by Arden S. Barnes
Fugate, the pastor, takes a moment to answer a call while helping move resources in and out of the church turned shelter.

Pastor Chris Fugate stood before a wooden cross at the front of the sanctuary and led the congregants in worship, delivering a sermon that had a clear message: “If I look to Jesus in bad times, He’s there.”

After the service, Gospel Light reverted to the shelter that it has been since the flooding began. Donated hot meals were doled out and cars streamed through the parking lot, either dropping off provisions or requesting food, cleaning supplies, diapers and cases of water – a necessity in an area where the vast majority of residents have gone days without running water.

Through the first four days of the disaster, Fugate said the church took in close to 200 people, some staying overnight and some coming and going.

“They slept on the chairs the first two nights,” Fugate said. “We just got the cots last night.”

Daugherty and several of her family members arrived at the church after an arduous escape from the swirling muddy waters.

She said they lived in a small home on a single row of cinder blocks near a pair of creeks, both normally “just ankle-deep.”

“It all came so quickly,” Daugherty said of the flood. “In like a matter of 20 minutes.”

Her husband tied a rope around himself and their youngest daughter. After making it to higher ground, he returned for Daugherty and then for their animals, she said. They moved to a building on the back of the hillside and stayed in one room while the waters rose outside.

They were trapped for 2 and 1/2 days, Daugherty said. Rescue helicopters swirled overhead; she said one tried to land but was unable to do so. With the water still high but somewhat receding, Daugherty felt she had no choice.

“I walked out of there,” Daugherty said, trudging through water. “Then I got a ride up [to Hazard].”

Without a charged cellphone for days, she said, she didn’t know whether other family members had survived and that shelters were open. When she finally charged her phone, the first message that rolled in was from her sister, who was staying at Gospel Light. From the church they were able to send out more help to rescue the rest of her family.

“I’m very grateful for this place,” Daugherty said. “Because without it, I don’t know.”

Two years before the flood, she said, a fire destroyed her family’s home. Now, her home is destroyed again. But part of the structure was still standing, proof enough for Daugherty that others still had it worse.

“It’s a very traumatic experience,” Daugherty said. “There are people here that are missing family members, and their homes look like nothing’s been built there.”

Fugate started Gospel Light Baptist back in 2011. At the time, he was a drug detective with the state police, but he has since retired. He is also a member of the state legislature.

“My faith in people has grown this week, because it’s easy to dwell on the negative,” Fugate said. “I was a state trooper for 22 years, I saw the negative a lot.”

Fugate started the church with the help of a close friend, Richy Miller, another former state trooper. Miller was spending his nights at the church in the days following the flooding, sharing stories with survivors and growing close with them.

“I’ve seen a lot of dead people in my career. Worked suicides, worked murders, car wrecks, people with their heads cut off. I’ve seen it all,” Miller said. “I’ve never been as heartbroken as I have been with some of these people.”

Johnny Williams, another member of the church who was volunteering around the shelter, said he was confident in the resiliency of the community because of the help he has seen neighbors offer neighbors.

“That’s what we do here,” Williams said. “Everybody in the mountains is family.”

Of course, many will also heed Fugate’s sermon and lean into their faith in tough times.

“I don’t know what the next step is or where help is going to come from,” Daugherty said. “But hopefully God has a plan. He’s never failed us yet.”

Photo for The Washington Post by Arden S. Barnes
Kristie Daugherty feeds her 2-month-old cousin, Angel, in the sanctuary at Gospel Light Baptist Church.