Eastern Kentuckian who lost his wife and house in 2022 flood gets a new home on high ground

Published 8:00 am Monday, June 24, 2024

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By Jenni Glendenning

Kentucky Lantern

Farmer Baker was holding on for his life, clutching a pair of post hole diggers, on the night of July 27-28, 2022, as part of Eastern Kentucky’s record flooding swept through his garage on Lower River Caney in Breathitt County. He had already watched the waters sweep away his wife, Vanessa, the only one of 45 victims whose body has not been found.

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“I looked up to God in the garage and said, ‘You took her, take me too, but he had a purpose for me, or he would have took me. He wouldn’t have throwed me through that garage door and let me live, not unless he’s got a purpose for me. I don’t know what it is, but he’s got a purpose for me here on this earth. Hopefully I can figure it out.”

Baker spoke Friday to Mindy Miller of the Hazard-based Housing Development Alliance, which is building three homes in the Blue Sky subdivision near the Hazard airport with the help of DreamBuilders, a Maryland-based nonprofit that brought 38 workers to the site for a “blitz build” June 17-21. Miller, HDA’s director of development and communication, provided an unedited recording for this story.

Baker, who has been living with his son, told Miller he will feel comforted living on high ground, but “God knows where you’re at. … And when the time comes, he’s gonna take you, ain’t nobody gonna save you, just like Melissa that night.”

Then he offered his philosophy of living: “The Bible says if you don’t love your neighbor, you don’t love him. I love everybody on this earth, I don’t care who they are.” Choking a bit, he added, “I love the Housing Alliance for getting me this house. I appreciate it so much, you don’t realize it.”

This is the HDA’s 30th year of fulfilling low-income families’ dreams of home ownership in Eastern Kentucky. 

DreamBuilders is an interfaith community of teens and adults who build homes for those in need. This was their second trip to Hazard; last year they largely built two homes in four days for flood survivors.

The group was led by John McBeth, who founded DreamBuilders 22 years ago as a Christian youth group. He said the week at Blue Sky was one of the hottest the organization has encountered, with temperatures in the mid 90s, but “It’s a real blessing to be here, and it’s our experience that we actually get much more back than we give.”

Two DreamBuilders volunteers, Luke Gore and Maddox Shuman, said it took them 10 days to bicycle 562 miles from Westminster, Maryland, staying with friends and family along the way. They were inspired to start an Instagram account to journal their travels: @dreamcyclers.

At the worksite, Miller updated the project’s progress on social media.

The other two homes that went up during the “blitz build” are spec homes that will be available to low-income applicants in the area.

HDA says it designs individual financing packages to be affordable for new homeowners. “This usually involves the combination of a low-interest home loan, along with a subsidy that they qualify for based on different factors,” said Julia Stanganelli, HDA’s flood recovery coordinator.

For flood survivors, Stanganelli said, there are flood-specific grants and forgivable-loan funding for which HDA helps qualify the homeowners. Sometimes, flood survivors also have funds they can contribute from their FEMA awards or funds they’ve received through a home-buyout program, and some may not need to take a loan at all, Stanganelli said: “Every situation tends to be unique.”

The blitz builders had the main walls of all three homes up by Tuesday afternoon and by Friday had all three framed and under roof. The HDA says its carpenters were on the worksites to ensure all work is up to code and passes state inspection.

Now, certified plumbers, electricians, and HVAC subcontractors will come in. It will take six to eight weeks to complete a home after the exterior is sufficiently dry enough to install weather-sensitive material such as drywall, flooring, trim and paint.

Carpenter Lindsey King started out as an apprentice carpenter with HDA’s paid on-the-job training program in residential construction for people in substance-use recovery. She impressed HDA so much as a trainee that it hired her full-time, and she is now the program’s assistant trainer. 

How to volunteer

If you have a group of volunteers interested in sponsoring an HDA project, you will need a maximum of 20 people, a $25,000 contribution for sponsorship, and the ability to spend one week in Eastern Kentucky helping to change the lives of families in need. 

The sponsorship helps finance a new home for a low-income family in need, but the house-raising challenge goes beyond the house; the sponsorship plays an important role in sustaining HDA’s homeownership program for future low-income homeowners and those in need of disaster recovery, Miller said.

Volunteers do not need construction experience. HDA carpenters are onsite at all times while volunteers frame floors and walls, set roofs and trusses, put shingles on the roof, build the porches and decks, install windows and doors, and cover the exterior with house wrap and siding.

As he watched his house go up Friday, Baker said, “You know, you’ve worked you know how many years in your life. You know what you’ve got in your home and you know what you’ve got built up, and all of it taken away from you. …  People think ‘Well, you know, he lost his home, so what?’ but I lost more. In my heart, I lost more … I lost her that night and lost everything I had.”

But now he’s getting part of it back.