David Whitaker watched the creek overtake the road in front of his home on Thursday, July 28, 2022 — and then watched in horror as the flood waters began to advance faster, bringing with them remnants of the destruction already reaped across eastern Kentucky.
“A large metal bridge swept across the creek and wiped out the middle bridge near my house,” he said, adding that the same debris swept past his shed across the street, taking out his porch, condenser, and more.
“There was so much water and so much earth movement that the roads are deteriorated,” he said. “Water was about a foot high going down my road. It pulled solid chunks of pavement missing from the road.”
That was just the beginning of what Whitaker and the rest of the Neon, Kentucky community would face in the wake of historic rains and flooding that hit eastern Kentucky the last week of July and first week of August. Whitaker and his wife Angela, owners of Whitaker’s Food World IGA in the unincorporated community in Letcher County (population: <1,000 people), would soon learn that their store was also flooded, as was much of the community itself.
“It would shock you the amount of people who were displaced,” Whitaker said. “I’ve never seen so much water in my entire life. It really came fast. A girl who works for me got a call from her neighbor, warning her that the water was already at the porch. She quickly got the kids dressed to leave and the water was already up to the truck.” Whitaker said the employee was able to get the kids out safely, but it was close.
Whitaker said the bridges are the “lifeblood” to get into the Neon area, and even to exit the state. With many bridges wiped out, people were stranded. Lucky for Whitaker, within 48 hours the sheriff and magistrate had commandeered three backhoes and dug out the area where the bridge near his home had been swept away and the county created a makeshift one-lane road for everyone to get out.
That quick work made it possible for Whitaker to get over to his store and assess the damage. Very soon, he had guests. Laurel Grocery Company services Whitaker’s store, and they were following the flooding closely from their headquarters in London, Kentucky.
“As soon as I heard the news of the flooding in Neon, I decided to drive out to visit David and Angela Whitaker at their store on Saturday,” Laurel Grocery Company Chairman and CEO Winston Griffin said. “The devastation I saw in the area simply cannot be put into words, with a vast majority of those living in Neon suffering major damage or losing their homes entirely.”
Without power for five days, Whitaker wasn’t able to remove the water until the fourth day, when he gained access to a generator. And while Whitaker lost all of his perishable stock and will need to replace some floor tiles, he’s more concerned about the devastation to the community.
The Current State Of The Community
These floods were relentless and unforgiving, killing at least 37 people. Many of the survivors' homes and businesses are decimated, with mobile homes reduced to their frames and insides of buildings plastered with debris and mud.
"A lot of people don’t understand the nature of this part of the world,” he explained. ”There are so many under the poverty line with limited or no transportation. A lot of the folks, they get out of their house a couple times a month to fill their primary groceries, and for fill-ins they’ll get a ride with someone to the dollar store.”
“We don’t have the infrastructure to take care of what needs to be done, and that’s where we’re relying on these relief organizations,” Whitaker continued. “If we’re going to avoid the level of this disaster again, we need to dredge creeks, clear the side of the creeks from any kind of debris that can launch downstream.”
Griffin said Whitaker’s deep concern for his community demonstrates that Hometown Proud dedication.
“The Whitaker’s have already been through a lot over the past year – having lost their own home to a fire within the last 12 months, and they were currently without electricity and water at their home due to the flooding,” Griffin said. “One statement David made really stuck out to me and spoke to his character. He said, ‘There are a lot of people worse off than we are right now.’ After everything he and his family had been through, he was still focused on serving others in their greatest time of need. You see what people are made of when faced with extreme adversity, and we are proud to have David and Angela as part of the Laurel family.”
Since so many of those locals were displaced and lost their vehicles, Whitaker said they’re unable to shop at the store right now. That lack of business, coupled with his inability to get flood insurance in the area, means that even after what insurance will cover (lost perishables and loss of income while the store was closed), they will still be out a significant amount of money.
“Right now we’re 14% down from where we would be at this time last year,” Whitaker said. “I sold on average five pallets of water a week, and now I’m selling almost nothing. Those without water or electricity can’t get to the stores.”
Whitaker is hopeful that the community will rebuild and grateful to the relief organizations who have come to help. “Business will bounce back. It’s unreal the amount of relief organizations working here now. That’s been a big help to people, especially folks staying with someone else.”
Joining in the relief efforts was Whitaker’s distributor, Laurel Grocery Company. “We immediately sent a truckload of water to the area where the store was hit to help everyone,” Senior Director of Marketing and Advertising Jake Jennings said. “One of our drivers took it upon himself to bring a truckload of supplies to the area. He used his own truck, his own fuel, his own time.” Jennings added that their employees researched the most needed items in flood areas and quickly donated them for the driver to bring to Neon and other towns with Laurel-serviced stores that were affected.
Once they knew Whitaker planned to reopen the store on Wednesday, August 3, Laurel’s field team was adamant about helping Whitaker reopen. “We took an all hands on deck approach, sending field team members from all over,” Jennings said. “David lost all of his perishables, so we focused on replenishing his meat, dairy, and frozen as well as helping with the cleanup efforts.”
Thanks to Laurel and the many relief organizations helping the community with demolition, there is hope. Still, there is a lot of work ahead, and Whitaker’s Food World IGA is crucial to health and survival of the community. “We would be sorely missed if we weren’t here,” Whitaker said. “You’d have to drive six miles up the road to get to Save A Lot, 12 or more miles to Walmart, 14 miles for Priceless Foods. In the aging population, that’s hard to do. We’re essential to the community.”
He has already seen people banding together to help one another, but knows they need a lot of outside help. “Mountain people are a rougher cut of people and we’re determined to dig out from underneath this thing. But we can’t do it alone,” he said.
If you want to help Whitaker’s Food World IGA and the Neon community as they rebuild, you can submit a tax-deductible donation to IGA’s Hometown Proud Foundation. Donations made in the month of August will go to help the community, associates, and IGA stores in the Southeast impacted by flooding recover.