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Eastern Kentucky delays the start of school as people rebuild after floods

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We've had a lot of flooding news this summer. Floods in the Southwest swept away a hiker in Zion National Park. In Dallas, rains drowned cars and prompted a disaster declaration. And in eastern Kentucky recently, where floods washed away entire communities, kids who were supposed to be back in school are still waiting. WFPL's Jess Clark reports.

JESS CLARK, BYLINE: Hey, Rachael. Can you show me the camper?

Third-grader Rachael Parks is living in a camping trailer with her family outside their flood-damaged home in Buckhorn, Ky.

RACHAEL: This is the kitchen. Here's the bathroom.

CLARK: During the flood, Rachael spent a harrowing night in the car with her mom, dad and older brother. They parked on a hill and waited as the water rose over their whole neighborhood, terrified that the massive dam holding back Lake Buckhorn would burst.

RACHAEL: It was really sad, scary and overwhelming.

CLARK: Rachael says she gets scared now every time it rains. She's antsy for school to start so she can see her friends again and make sure they're OK. But because the area sustained so much damage, the district had to push the first date back several weeks.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANGING)

CLARK: At Letcher Elementary and Middle School, Sherry Brown is in the kitchen getting meals ready for the volunteers, who will arrive with trucks and ATVs.

SHERRY BROWN: We load them down with food. And we send them to the haulers.

CLARK: More than a thousand families in Letcher County alone lost their homes. Many buildings in the Letcher County school system were flooded. And the ones that weren't are serving as relief centers. Brown is the cafeteria manager at this mountain school. Now she and a few other staff and volunteers are pulling 16-hour days to cook enough for the entire area - students, families and their neighbors.

BROWN: We got to feed them babies. That's our goal, feed our babies.

CLARK: Meanwhile, the start of school in Letcher is on hold indefinitely. Recovery costs to school districts throughout the region will likely top $100 million.

BRENT HOOVER: We have, as you know, three schools impacted.

CLARK: Several miles away, in neighboring Knott County, School Superintendent Brent Hoover is taking call after call, trying to figure out how to get three flooded buildings repaired. But his mind is elsewhere.

HOOVER: I have - out there in my car now, I have eight obituary cards. I've attended eight funerals in six days.

CLARK: At least 39 people are confirmed dead as a result of the flooding, including several children. Hoover is anxious for students to be back in the classroom so the kids have some semblance of normalcy.

HOOVER: It is very important to me to get back in and have a normal school year.

CLARK: But first, school buildings have to be cleaned. Sewer systems have to be repaired. And buses have to be rerouted to avoid washed out roads.

UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER #1: I just mean it.

CLARK: At Emmalena Elementary, Kimberly Mosley and her fourth-grade daughter, Tinsley, are helping unload donations - this time, a brand-new mattress, which Tinsley decides might be too heavy for her 9-year-old arms.

TINSLEY: Oh, I can't carry a mattress.

CLARK: Nearby, empty lots and foundations are all that's left of some students' homes. One of them belonged to second-grader Madison Noble, who died along with her three younger siblings when floodwater swept them from their parents' grasp. Mosley was Madison's teacher. She's coping by throwing herself into relief efforts.

KIMBERLY MOSLEY: Now, when school starts back, it's going to be another hit, when you start having empty seats in your classroom.

CLARK: This is it, Mosley, says. Tinsley props open the door as volunteers debate how to get the mattress into the gym.

UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER #2: I guess we'd better go out there and help.

CLARK: She's looking forward to when she'll be back in this building with all of her classmates once school starts.

TINSLEY: I'm kind of sad I got pushed back. But I know why I had to be pushed back.

CLARK: She's got more than a month to wait.

For NPR News, I'm Jess Clark in Emmalena.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jess Clark is WWNO's Education Desk reporter. Jess comes to the station after two years as Fletcher Fellow for Education Policy Reporting for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC (Chapel Hill). Her reporting has aired on national programs, including NPR's All Things Considered, Here & Now from WBUR, and NPR's Weekend Edition.