February 27, 2009

Although the ice has melted from trees across the state, most Kentuckians will long remember the ice storm of 2009. And likely, they won't soon forget the extra-mile efforts of University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension and College of Agriculture employees who served communities and made the storm's blow a little less harsh.

"I keep hearing stories trickle in from around the state about things our employees did outside the scope of their job descriptions to get their communities up and running," said Jimmy Henning, director of the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service. "It doesn't really surprise me though; that's the kind of people we have working in all our extension offices - people who really care about their neighbors and who would do just about anything to see their communities recover and thrive."

In many counties, extension agents rushed to put together research-based news for local newspapers, mailed information to clientele and answered phone calls on topics like food safety, carbon monoxide poisoning, generator use, mold and mildew, watering livestock, insurance claims, chain saw safety, downed power lines, trees and landscaping and much more. They also volunteered their time and worked with local shelters to organize efforts, provide food and care, made farm visits to access damages and assist clientele, communicated with local utility and emergency coordinators.

Perhaps one of the most visible efforts came from Cooperative Extension employees in hard-hit McLean County. Carla Durbin, extension agent for 4H Youth development, spent the first four days of the ice storm at her son's home in Owensboro because she had no power or heat at her home in Livermore.

"While I was there, I opened up a make-shift soup kitchen in my son's home and fed around 20 people daily. My son had a generator and gas range so preparing food was much easier there," she recalled. "By the fifth day, I was able to help in my own community so I purchased groceries for one feeding site and then worked with others for about 36 hours preparing and serving meals for families at Livermore City Hall, one of the refuge sites."

When Durbin was able to get to the city hall, she helped prepare 810 meals that day alone.

"When the site coordinator saw me, she started crying because she remembered me teaching her daughters cooking skills in 4-H years ago and knew I had food preparation experience for larger groups," she said. "I started my days in the kitchen at 6 a.m. and taught some younger men from the National Guard how to make biscuits from scratch. We made 25 dozen homemade biscuits from donated supplies. Then I realized we needed more eggs for the following meals."

Durbin enlisted the help of local poultry producer Nancy Butler, who made two or three contacts and then traveled with her husband to Tennessee. They brought back cases upon cases of donated eggs.

"We used these to make scrambled eggs, cakes, French toast, boiled eggs for salads and bread puddings at the three different feeding sites in the county," Durbin said. "We even gave some to families and especially senior citizens once power had been restored because they had little money to buy food after spending so much on fuel for generators to keep the homes above freezing."

All together, Durbin and four other volunteers helped prepare about 1,700 meals at the Livermore site over their two-day volunteer stint.

"It's hard to realize the devastation and the problems this storm caused unless you experienced it firsthand and saw that there were no grocery stores, food pantries, restaurants or gas stations open to meet the people's needs," she emphasized. "The gas stations that were finally able to open would only have gas a few hours and food was something very hard to find unless you went to one of the free feeding sites or traveled 30 minutes up to an hour into another county. Without gas, many families had to find a feeding site that they could walk to."

Durbin and fellow McLean County extension staff members Linda Graham and Mischelle Pinkston also used the feeding times at the site to pass out food safety and nutrition information to those they were serving. Durbin said Pinkston even went door-to-door to check on some neighbors near the extension office.

Extension specialists and educators on UK's campus in Lexington were able to provide information about how homeowners could decide what trees on their property were salvageable, tree replacement strategies and how the state's woodland owners can deal with timber loss.

"We've got tools and information in extension to respond to every facet of the ice storm's effects," Henning said. "It's great to see them being put to use for our clients, and it's also great to see the interaction of our people with their communities in times of crisis. Hopefully, it will just reinforce our purpose and show our clients that we do have a lot to offer them in the good times and the not-so-good times."

Now that the power is back on, UK Cooperative Extension and College of Agriculture employees won't slow down. They will continue to provide solid, research-based information about agriculture, horticulture, forestry, youth development, food and nutrition. They'll also continue to offer programs that seek to enrich the lives of all Kentuckians, Henning said.

"Basically, we'll just go back to doing what we've always done - serving the people of Kentucky in any way we can," he said.

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