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Slow recovery threatens hope in Eastern Kentucky

The Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center building, 317 E. Main St., Whitesburg, Kentucky, is submerged in flood waters on July 28, 2022. (Photos courtesy of Matt and Carrie Carter, ACLC.)

Editor's Note: More than six months after massive flooding in Eastern Kentucky, residents in hard-hit areas are still hurting from the loss of lives, property and any sense of normalcy. The wounds from such devastating natural disasters are slow to heal and can leave deep scars for generations. This is a firsthand account of the flood's initial and lingering effects.

By Courtney Rhoades Mullins

The call came in at 3:30 a.m. on July 28 from Nate, my fiancé. “Court, there is water everywhere,” he said. The creek that runs alongside his family’s property in Pike County’s Myra, Kentucky, was raging through their yard and they were having to flee to higher ground. I wouldn’t hear from Nate for several more hours due to the already limited cell service in our area being overwhelmed. During those early morning hours, Nate would carry his elderly neighbor to higher ground through hip-deep, raging water. They watched from the porch of another house as the flood waters tore into her home. Meanwhile, flooded roads would leave me trapped in my house and feeling guilty for not being able to directly help those in the areas being impacted.

I graduated with my master’s in Appalachian Studies in 2018 from East Tennessee State University and shortly began working in the non-profit sector. After moving to Whitesburg, Kentucky, in the summer of 2019, I accepted a job as the Black Lung Organizer at Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, a nonprofit law firm that works to correct the injustices of the legacies of coal mining in Appalachia — specifically environmental issues, mine safety, and black lung. Prior to the pandemic, my typical work week involved traveling to various parts of the region to talk with retired coal miners, as well as their wives and widows, about various issues they were facing in their battle with black lung. I started at ACLC during the fight to protect the benefits for those with black lung. The COVID pandemic created a need to help those most susceptible to the virus due to their already weakened lungs. We held multiple Zoom trainings, phone calls and sent mailings to ensure that miners were abreast of how to protect themselves from the virus and about the fight to maintain their benefits. July 28 should have been a time for celebration. We had just heard that a permanent extension of the excise tax that funds the Black Lung Benefits Disability Trust Fund had been included in a climate bill in the U.S. Senate. After years of hard work, the extension was days from being implemented as part of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.

Three years to the month after beginning my work at ACLC, our main office was submerged in water just as we were beginning to return to an in-person schedule. In less than 24 hours, thousands of people in multiple counties of Eastern Kentucky found themselves facing the devastation of unprecedented flooding. Families were left wondering where they would spend the night now that their homes were saturated in contaminated flood waters. Others lost everything. Homes were lifted up and carried miles away. Regular reports included the number of people missing and stories of survivors clinging to trees for hours waiting to be rescued. The devastation faced by our region is still hard to recount months later.

Slow and laborious cleanup efforts are apparent in the Upper Bottom neighborhood of Whitesburg, Kentucky, weeks after flood waters had receded.

I remember feeling like I was working to mentally triage the destruction as best I could while trying to figure out where to start with cleaning up. I would start by reassuring loved ones that we were OK before checking on others and helping those I could. The work had barely begun. The weeks ahead would find us working to remove mud from every surface the water had touched.

Many of us contemplate the various scenarios of how things could have played out differently that day. As of January, the number of those killed by the flood remained at 44. The devastation to the land and homes that are still standing remains evident. Open windows provide interiors stripped of dryway to aid the drying process. Also displayed is the emptiness of what was once someone’s place of shelter and comfort. The pain remains evident also on the faces of those in our communities burdened with the stress and weariness of wondering what comes next. Even those like me who are fortunate enough to live in homes not flooded are just one degree away from the impact. Everyone in Eastern Kentucky is affected, either directly or through the hardships inflicted upon friends, family members and workplaces. Every corner of the community is touched by this catastrophe. 

A work crew takes a break to pose for a snapshot while cleaning up around the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Whitesburg, Kentucky.

Days after the flood, groups began arriving in Whitesburg to help feed those impacted and provide medical care. Supplies came pouring in, along with volunteers to help with cleaning out homes. Families began going through belongings and salvaging what they could. Although experiences from previous major floods were referenced often, many did not know what to do in terms of FEMA protocols. As a result, misinformation began to spread. Neighbors advised one another not to begin cleaning out homes until FEMA could investigate, and that simply spraying bleach on drywall would prevent mold. There was no clear way to get the correct information out. Despite the prevalence of social media and cell phones, communication was blocked in many areas due to downed lines, internet disruptions and road washouts. Another major issue hampering cleanup was people entering the area “to see the damage," causing congested roadways and hazardous work conditions. Many residents have struggled to simply access their homes due to bridge collapses, with more than 100 private bridges damaged in Letcher County alone.

The focus since the flood has been mucking out communities and determining long-term recovery solutions, while the media has since moved on from the sensationalism of our disaster to focus on the next. A few days after the flood, the Lexington Herald-Leader printed a cartoon depicting a man, woman and child on the roof of their house in a flooded valley. The image is similar to a news picture of a woman sitting on the roof of her home in Elkhorn City waiting to be rescued. The caption for the cartoon says, “When it rains, it pours on poor people.” Many expressed hurt on social media over how the cartoon seemed to be another instance of media portraying those of the region negatively. The volume of those expressions led the cartoon's creator, Joel Pett, to post a reaction on the newspaper's op-ed page.

"The intention of the drawing was to lament that when heartbreaking disasters like this strike, it is often the people who can least afford it who are hit the hardest," Pett said.

The negative response to the cartoon stems from sensitivities developed throughout generations of enduring stereotypes implying that the people of the region are somehow at fault for the disasters that occur. I work regularly with retired coal miners who fight daily against black lung, a disease that could be lowered by enforcement of improved mine safety protocols. Most of these miners will tell you that at some point they were asked, “Why didn’t you get out of the dust?” The Appalachian region has a long history of tragedy — from mine disasters and slurry spills to devastating floods. It's a history that leads many outside the region to question why residents do not simply leave. Lost in such a question are economic factors associated with moving, or the generational pull that many feel to remain with the land.

This writing marks six months since the flood and yet the work of recovery is nowhere near finished. The number of those who are displaced from their homes remains high with some families residing in tents, sheds, and campers. Amid the sub-zero temperatures during the week of Christmas, I wondered how those families were staying warm and how much longer they would be reliant on these forms of temporary shelter. The flood has greatly exacerbated a shortage of affordable housing in Eastern Kentucky. And while there are state lawmakers who support ideas such as the Affordable Housing Emergency Action Recovery Trust Fund (AHEART), which suggests directing $150 million of Kentucky's more than $2 billion surplus toward relieving housing needs, no formal legislation has been proposed as of this writing.

As we look to rebuild, the other issue to consider is flood mitigation planning to prepare for the future. Previous studies showed an increased risk of flooding for the Whitesburg area, yet those in the area had little warning. The question now is, whose responsibility will it be to enforce planning around preparing for future floods, and who will fund this? Our communities will need additional resources to achieve successful mitigation plans, including an improved monitoring system on local waterways to provide flood warnings.

A friend shared with me a timeline of the “typical phases of a disaster,” which projects that before the first year of recovery is complete, a pocket of disillusionment or a “slump” in recovery efforts is experienced ahead of a reconstruction period. Facing the reality of not knowing how to solve many of the problems confronting those in flood-ravaged Eastern Kentucky could set the stage for such a "slump." With each story of despair, the shock remains strong while the ability to remain hopeful is lessened. While days shortly after the flood were depleting, there was a large sense of togetherness and hope as the aftershocks of the flood were faced head-on. Now, I am left wondering when will my community recover and how do we protect ourselves from the next 1,000-year flood?

Courtney Rhoades Mullins is the Black Lung Organizer at Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Whitesburg, Kentucky. She holds a M.A. in Appalachian Studies from East Tennessee State University and a B.S. in Biology from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.


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