In July of 2022 Letcher County, Kentucky had a 100 year flood, that left many businesses having to decide if they should rebuild or not.
The devastation was beyond believe. The IGA Grocery store in the small town of Isom was one of the many businesses affected. On a visit to the county one year after the flood I had to go see what happened to the Isom IGA grocery store.
You can see the waters in this photo below. The store is in a tiny strip mall, and is an anchor tenant. Frankly, when I first saw the video of the destruction, I had my doubts they could ever come back from it.
It is a lifeline in a food desert.
There are only a few grocery stores in the county, and the IGA is the only store in a 12 mile radius. Gwen Christon, the owner, has worked in this store for 50 years, and has owned it since 1998. We’re about the same age, and we shared stories of growing up in a small town. We laughed about all the hard work we’ve done over the years, and how we can’t imagine ever quitting work.
Her home, her livelihood, her family, her community is here. Simon, her son, left town as most young people do. Once while on a vacation, he brought his family for a visit and ended up helping his mom in the store. He’d gotten his masters in business, and was on a path to use his education. He still uses it, except he decided to move back home, with his family. Simon will one day take over the business.
Gwen told me the water went up over the roof line during the flood. I found it hard to believe, so we walked out back to take a look at the huge rushing river that made it possible.
Except it was not a river, it was a tiny creek you could walk across. There was a 10 foot bank, and the creek itself was set back from the store about 25 yards. I’m still aghast as I imagine that small creek filling up with rushing water coming down from the mountains and then rising and rising until it ran over the banks. And it kept rising. Until the entire building was under water.
Gwen told me she had to reopen the store.
As much as she wanted to just lie down, she knew her community of family and friends and neighbors needed her. Over the years, they’d supported her and how could she quit now? And that same community helped her in many ways, they helped with grants, small business loans, getting FEMA to help, and about $180,000 in local national donations. Lots of hard work from pushing mud, removing shelving units, and dumping all the inventory (it was all ruined.) Many people showed up to help.
What’s it like today?
It took them 9 months to finish the work and reopen the store. It’s bright, shiny and new. They provide fresh, locally grown produce as well. One 80 something year old man brings in produce every other week or so, and is thrilled at being able to help feed people, and earn some extra money too. They’ve got a relatively new employee that is a cake baker, and Gwen is thinking about having workshops teaching others how to decorate a cake.
They have added on a bit of space that they use as a community gathering place. It’s perfect for birthday parties, small meetings, workshops and other gatherings. Some of their elderly shoppers now get their food delivered, because they can’t get out as much. Not only do they receive food, but Simon checks up on them and provides a bit of company. Simon would love a movie theater in town. We talked about partnering with the library and showing movies on the side of the building. Folks could bring their lawn chairs and enjoy the movie. the IGA will have the popcorn!
Gwen and Simon took 2 hours out of their day to share their story with me. But mostly they talked about the people who live in the area. They shared stories of the good things happening after the flood. It was definitely heart wrenching surviving the flood, but the love that poured out of that small town for them has made all the difference.