Building Bridges After the Storm

Devon Miller

In the hollers of Eastern Kentucky, community is everything. When flood waters rose in late July of 2022, one family was isolated from the rest of the world—and from much-needed medical treatment. Then came the community and some outsiders to change all that.

Joyce Baker has lived her entire life in Kentucky, raising her children and grandchildren in a narrow, tree-lined holler with a stream running through the middle. The Baker home sat right along that stream with a sturdy one-lane bridge connecting the family to the town of Thorton.

In July, historic rain caused catastrophic flooding across Eastern Kentucky and swept that bridge downstream.

“We didn’t lose our lives, we didn’t lose our homes, we just couldn’t get out,” Baker said. “It was frightening because you didn’t know how much higher it was going to get. It kept raining all night long.”

kentucky flooding bridge
The creek days after the Kentucky flooding with the ladder-and-plywood bridge.

Joyce’s daughters are both in need of routine medical treatment. One has cancer, another has had several strokes. Without the bridge, there was no way for them to receive care.

As the flood waters receded, the local community came together, building a makeshift bridge out of an old ladder and plywood. It was enough to get food and water to the family, but it wasn’t sturdy enough for Joyce’s daughter to cross with her walker.

“There is no other way for her to cross,” Baker explained. “She needs to be able to get out and get treatment. She needs that treatment.”

When he heard about the Bakers and their plight through a community leader Jarrett Brown, a Team Rubicon volunteer—or Greyshirt—and the incident commander for the local operation, wanted to “find a way to yes” to help the family.  

Bridge building isn’t typically within Team Rubicon’s scope of operations. But the Greyshirts knew that restoring this family’s access to their home was critical, and essential.

Kentucky flooding bridge building.
A Greyshirt in Kentucky escorts Ms. Baker across the newly built bridge.

“They were basically trapped in their home,” Brown said. “We have never done this before, but if this is something we think we can do we will try.”

After getting approval for the pilot project, Jarrett went straight to a local hardware store and sourced materials. Team Rubicon volunteers, known as Greyshirts, pre-cut the wood and delivered it to the Baker home.

“This family, and everyone who lives in this holler, they never thought anyone cared about them. We were the first team to come in and give them some type of hope,” reminisced Brown.

In just a few hours, Greyshirts had constructed a more secure footbridge and reconnected the family to that community that had been so concerned about them already.

For Baker, the efforts of her neighbors combined with the work the Greyshirts did was a blessing.

“We are going to be safe now,” she said.

Watch: An Eastern Kentucky flooding survivor tells her story.

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