More than 500 water filters have been distributed to families and individuals in Eastern Kentucky who lost access to potable water after deadly floods struck the region in late July.
That number is a drop in the bucket compared to the need, said Sister Larraine Lauter, who leads the Louisville-based Water With Blessings.
“Our goal is at minimum 2,500” filters, said Sister Lauter, an Ursuline Sister of Mount St. Joseph. “They are facing literal hardship right down the road from us.”
“In Upper River Caney (in Breathitt County) a lot was destroyed, but people are still up there. They’re trying to haul in bottles of water for people to wash clothes, wash dishes.”
A Sawyer PointONE water filter from Water With Blessings enables a family to “fill up a five-gallon bucket every 20 minutes” using water from the nearby Caney Creek or collected rain, she said.
“That’s huge right there. They’re going to be camping for months to one degree or another,” said Sister Lauter.
Gradually, water services have been restored in most of the affected communities, though boil-water advisories are still common, according to Dr. Kassi Marshall, a physician in the region who is coordinating the distribution of water filters. Some who live in remote hollers where damages were heavy are still waiting.
“There are people with running water, but we still have people who are homeless living in tents with no access to water,” said Marshall. “We don’t have a lot of rentals to begin with and we don’t have a lot of flat ground — finding places to put campers and trailers is hard to do. And then there are people who don’t want to leave their property, they don’t want people to take it or to vandalize it. And they stay on site to work on their property.”
Marshall spends several nights a week holding filter distribution sessions where she trains recipients to use them safely. She distributes them at her church, First Church of God in Chavies, Ky., and in parking lots around Perry County and surrounding areas.
“After work, I’ll go to a community we have arranged. Last week we went to Letcher County and made five stops in Letcher County and one in Knott County. Today I have a training set for community health workers so they can help get these to people.”
At Kentucky Homeplace in Campton, Ky., Aug. 29 she trained about 30 community health workers who will provide filters to households that need them. The organization coordinates health and social services for medically underserved people in Appalachia.
Sally Fugate, a widow and octogenarian in Barwick, Ky., hosted a training on her wrap-around front porch in mid-August and gathered a dozen or so neighbors to attend.
“It was almost like a church service,” Marshall said. “Her church was destroyed and she has been hosting church on her porch.”
During a visit to check in on Fugate, known as Aunt Sally, Marshall said she “sang a beautiful song for us and talked about the flood.”
“She lost her husband less than a year ago,” Marshall said. “She’s watching out for other people; she cooks meals for them. She’s the matriarch there.”
Marshall and Sister Lauter said they’ve heard repeatedly that the filters are not only meeting an immediate need but that they’ll make life better in the long run.
“People I talk to say, ‘I never use our tap water. We use bottled water to cook with. We need this all the time,’ ” Marshall said. “So people are extremely grateful. There’s just so many emotions; we felt so helpless and everything we did was so temporary.”
In the days following the floods, which killed at least 39 people, “I knew the food would run out. And the need was huge. It felt like a hopeless cause,” she said. “I know God has a plan, but it seemed so overwhelming.”
When she learned about the water filters and partnered with Water With Blessings in early August, “I thanked God and said I’m sorry for doubting you.”
One filter can clean up to three million gallons of water. And they’re easy to use, said Marshall. “It’s so simple. I had a 3-year-old at one of my trainings who said, ‘This is powerful,’ and he was helping take care of it,” learning to flush the filter after use.
Benedictine Sister Kathleen Weigand, who lives and works in the region, said her monastery’s monthly water bills in Floyd County often come with a warning.
“Just about every month, when we get a water bill, it will say there’s this and this in the water, if you have any health issues we advise you to boil your water. That’s even at the monastery,” she said, noting that the Mount Tabor Benedictines live on a hill.
Sister Weigand serves on the Diocese of Lexington’s Laudato Si’ Commission, dedicated to care for creation. The water contamination and flooding, she said, are in large part a result of mining in Eastern Kentucky.
“The water has been precarious from day one with mining run-off and now with mountaintop removal, you have the flooding,” she said. “We have been dealing with water issues for years.
“I know that mining has given people so many jobs and given them a living. … But coal is a resource that is not renewable. I think so many people have been affected by the coal industry and its long-term effects.”
In mountaintop removal mining, mining companies remove trees, other vegetation and topsoil from the surface of mountains and hills in order to extract coal or other resources. When heavy rain falls, as it did in late July, the water runs off the hilltops instead of being absorbed by soil and vegetation. Water pours into surrounding hollers, swelling small creeks beyond their banks.
The result is mudslides, flooding and contaminated water, said Sister Weigand.
“A lot of times it’s the poor who suffer, which is the case for Eastern Kentucky,” she said.
As an advisory board member for Appalachian Regional Healthcare, she has connected with Water With Blessings and Marshall to get filters distributed in the Floyd County area through the healthcare system’s Our Lady of the Way Hospital.
“Kassi Marshall has done such a fantastic job. This is truly an ecumenical effort in many ways. It doesn’t matter what church, we are out there to help,” she said.
Sister Weigand has volunteered to assist filter recipients a couple of days a week, helping them troubleshoot any problems or questions, she said.
Marshall said the entire effort could use more volunteers.
“Things have moved very quickly. We can’t get these to people quickly enough. We really do need volunteers. And we need secondary (distribution) sites here. They are volunteer-run, many are elderly and retired and were hit hard themselves. So they’re kind of overwhelmed.
“If people want to take a day or overnight trip we can arrange accommodations. There’s a lot of running because of how spread out our communities are. Even if it’s a day or two, we can use the help.”
So far, donors have funded 2,100 filter kits — including buckets and other accessories — a few hundred shy of the initial goal of 2,500. More than half of the project’s funding — about $45,000 — has come from congregations of women religious, said Sister Lauter.
To help fund the purchase of filters (they are $35 each) or to volunteer, contact Water With Blessings at 502-749-5492, email@example.com or waterwithblessings.org.