As Breathitt County, Kentucky, tries to recover from historic flooding, help is slow to arrive
By Skylar Baker-Jordan
Tony Calhoun was a precocious child. At just six years old, he wanted to check out a book from the local library in Breathitt County, Kentucky. “He can’t read,” his mother Betty Calhoun told the librarian. The librarian decided to test this, giving Tony the book — which he promptly began reading.
Tony had big dreams, even into middle age. He was an aspiring screenwriter and, with his friend Charles Shouse, produced the documentary, “The Untold Story of Bad Tom Smith,” which aired on TV stations across the Commonwealth. His best friend, his mother said, was the screenwriter Jeffrey Reddick, the creator of the Final Destination franchise.
Despite these Hollywood ambitions, Tony remained in his hometown in eastern Kentucky, where he grew up to become a loving father, a beloved fiancee and a cherished son who looked after his aging parents. “He had stopped working and he was looking after his parents and he was taking care of them, preparing all their meals for them, taking them to all their doctors’ appointments,” his fiancee, Edie Lisk, said. She said it was a role he was happy to fill. “He chose to become their caregiver and look after them
An avid collector, Tony’s prized possessions included a Michael Jordan rookie card which Edie estimates was worth $25,000. “The collectables he had were to be his retirement,” Edie said, and Tony had planned to start selling them when he turned 50. Worried about his parents possibly catching COVID-19 if he was exposed, the pandemic delayed the start of his sale. “And then,” she said, — her voice straining with grief — came “the morning of the 28th.”
That morning, extreme rainfall — combined with drought-parched soil too dry to absorb water — brought devastating and historic floods to eastern Kentucky. Flash floods swept through rural communities flooding or washing away homes, roads and bridges, and causing at least 40 deaths. According to reporting by The New York Times, the worst of the devastation is concentrated “in roughly a half-dozen counties in the Appalachian region in Kentucky’s southeast.”
As of this writing, 700 people remain displaced, including 400 now living in RV trailers and 300 living in Kentucky state parks. More than 10,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. While estimates for the total amount of damage are hard to come by, Gov. Andy Beshear, shortly after the floods, estimated the damage to schools alone to be “in the tens of millions, probably over $100 million.”
Tony Calhoun’s trailer and everything in it was destroyed in the floods. “It came up so fast that we couldn’t keep up with it. When it got up to his trailer, he just started climbing it,” Betty said. “We had never seen anything like that before.”
Though Tony made it out of the flood alive, he lost everything he had worked so hard for — everything he intended to use to secure his financial future. “The flood come down on him and it just destroyed his mind,” Lowell Calhoun, Tony’s father, said. “He just lost it. Nothing else, no other way to put it except he lost it, and he just couldn’t overcome it.”
The pressure of salvaging what he could and rebuilding what he could not engulfed him. On the morning of Aug. 8, Betty found her son dead. Tony had taken his own life. He was 52.
As the floodwaters receded, so too has the story of these historic and deadly floods from the national consciousness. For grieving families such as the Calhouns, the pain and devastation remain. While the rest of the nation moves on, they are still picking up the pieces of their broken hearts and shattered homes.
“You put a smile on your face,” David Haddix said, “and when the initial shock wears off, move forward.” Haddix is the pastor of the Lost Creek Evangelical Free Church in Jackson, the county seat. His church was destroyed in the flooding.
“The flood needed about two foot, and it would have been over the entire building,” Haddix said. “The building’s there, but everything inside — the walls are down, the ceiling’s down. Everything’s just destroyed.” So devastated was the structural integrity of the church that Haddix believes repair is not an option.
With about 100 members and weekly attendance at about 35 to 40, Lost Creek Evangelical is “just a small country church,” Haddix said. That has made getting help from federal agencies such as FEMA and the Small Business Administration difficult. “We’re not a big corporate church like a lot of places are,” he said. “In the
65 years this church has been in existence, we don’t need financials and all that stuff like that."
One of the biggest challenges Haddix has faced is that he does not have the deed to prove ownership of the church. “Like many small churches, someone said ‘go ahead and build the church, and as long as it’s a church you own the land,’” he said. “The original property owners where we are have passed away, all their children have passed away. So, who owns this? I don’t even know if they know they own this land. But the church doesn’t own it, never has owned it…”
He went to the Property Valuation Administration at the Breathitt County Courthouse but found no documentation. “I think it’s been there so long everybody in the (local) government just assumes the church owns the property, but we didn’t. Things like that knock you out of getting government help.”
This is an all-too-common problem, according to Breathitt County Circuit Court Clerk James Elliott Turner. His office is responsible for recording many of the legal documents in the county, and he said that a failure to transfer titles and deeds is a common occurrence in eastern Kentucky. “This is the 12th-poorest county in the nation,” he said. To save money, Turner said residents do not always transfer titles and deeds. “They live there and make the payments on it,” he said. “But to lose your home because you’re not the legal owner?” he asks rhetorically, clearly frustrated with the response from federal agencies.
One young man he knows had just bought a mobile home and was making payments despite not yet having occupied the structure. It was severely damaged in the flooding, “but because he didn’t live in it, he lost it all,” Turner said. “Stories like that are kind of mind boggling, how FEMA has so much red tape for folks trying to survive and do better. But do they really want you to do better? Do they really want to help you? I don’t know."
Haddix agrees that the federal agencies are not equipped to meet the unique needs of eastern Kentucky. “They’re not trained to look outside the box when it comes to dealing with certain areas,” he said “Things are done different in eastern Kentucky than they are in corporate America. But if it gets outside that box, the government says ‘I can’t help you because you’re not conforming to what we think you should have.’ I don’t think we’ll get any government help.”
This is not just locals being frustrated with federal bureaucracy. During an Aug. 11 news conference, Gov. Beshear said that too many of those applying for assistance from the federal government were being denied. “Not enough people are being approved,” he said. “And this is the time that FEMA’s got to get it right — to change what has been a history of denying too many people and not providing enough dollars, and to get it right there.”
This tracks with FEMA’s own data. As of Aug. 13 — just two weeks after the floods — the agency had already denied 690 applications, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. Many of these denials resulted from, among other issues, difficulty in verifying an applicant’s homeowner status or identity — the same issues Haddix is having with obtaining help for his church.
“So many have lost everything,” Haddix said, “and because of bureaucratic red tape they’ve been turned down for anything. They just need to see it turn the corner where somebody comes in and says we know, and we’re here to help.”
Tony Calhoun’s mother, Betty, agrees. “They need to get some help for people that’s been flooded… we have all kinds of different things that happen that it just puts people out of their homes. They need to do something.”
“He was very overwhelmed,” Edie Lisk, Tony’s fiancee, said. “He lost it all. His house totally flooded. The water came in so fast that he was overwhelmed.” She said that as the days went on and Tony tried to both help his parents and salvage what he could from his own home, that “he became more anxious, more and more overwhelmed.” Other than a cousin who assisted, Tony had no help, she said.
That frustrates Turner, who does not understand why the federal government is not doing more to aid recovery in the region. “We’re Americans,” he said. “They’ll give millions to Ukraine but give us next to nothing? Or very little? I don’t understand.”
The lack of support is having a negative effect on the mental and emotional health of the people trying to recover. “Morale is not too good,” Turner said, pointing out that this is the second time in as many years that Breathitt County has experienced severe flooding. “When you lose your home for the second time in a year and a half, your spirits are broken.”
Tony Calhoun was one of those people. His trailer was damaged in the 2021 flooding, but he had recently fixed that damage, his mother said. “He’d just got the insulation taken out and he finally found someone to help him put it back in, and they just got it back in. And then we had another flood this year.”
Like Turner, Tony Calhoun wanted the rest of the world to know that eastern Kentucky is deserving. “He made me promise him two things,” an emotional Lisk said as she fought back tears. “We had text messages that he was sending me when I was sleeping, and he asked me to share his text messages with the world. He said it was his legacy. He said, ‘Let the world know what the good families in eastern Kentucky go through.’”
The second thing Tony asked was that she get saved — accept Jesus Christ as her personal savior. She did — right in his parents’ living room. “Somebody knocked on our door, and it was Mark Driscoll,” Betty Calhoun said. “He’s a preacher. And I said ‘Mark, you’re the very friend that we need here right now.’”
Friends are something that eastern Kentucky could use more of as they continue to recover from one of the darkest moments in the state’s history. “If I could give a message for folks around the nation, I’ll just say this: The people in Breathitt County and eastern Kentucky are just as important as anybody else,” Turner said. “Our kids, our people, our senior citizens are people who need and deserve a good quality of life.”
Turner hopes that the federal government will begin funding projects to repair people’s homes, local roads, and other infrastructure damaged not only by the flooding but by decades of neglect from state and federal agencies. “We are a proud people,” he said, “but we also need some help.”
Another thing folks in eastern Kentucky need, Turner said, is hope. “We need a hope that better days are going to come. When people are sending a positive message, that’s fine, we can talk about it. But you’ve got to back up your words.”
Others are looking at ways to prevent another tragedy from occurring. For Tony Calhoun’s father, Lowell, that means safeguarding the local environment and repairing damage done by extractive industries. “We couldn’t have changed one iota of the tragedy that we’ve went through,” he said, “but going back to the mines and timber cutters who have been in here cutting so much timber the last ten years, it took a toll on the land. A lot of people just never put water bars like they should be to keep the land from eroding.”
Lowell Calhoun also worries that some of the abandoned mines in the county left it vulnerable to flooding. Mine owners and operators, he fears, “didn’t take care of them like they should, and all that water came down on us… just like somebody turned the hose on. A big, giant hose and put it right over the water and it come up. Just humungous waves of water that came in on [Tony’s] doublewide.”
He is not alone. In August, at least 59 people had joined a lawsuit against Blackhawk Mining and Pine Branch Mining. The companies’ silt ponds failed, contaminating the water and causing debris to damage their homes. The plaintiffs allege that the companies did not live up to their legal safety requirements and are thus liable for damage caused by the silt ponds and mines.
Whether the plaintiffs will be successful in their litigation remains to be seen. What is certain is that the road to recovery in Breathitt County is rough and steep. “Parts of this county here are like a tornado and an earthquake hit at once,” Turner said. Crews have been working weekends to clean up the debris and remove doublewides displaced by the floodwaters, but it’s an arduous process. “You can see progress,” he said. “But it’s slow.”
For Tony Calhoun’s loved ones, the process of mourning their beloved son and fiancee is likewise slow and arduous. “It doesn’t feel like he’s — I mean, we all know he’s gone,” Lisk said, “but it still feels like he’s going to walk through that door at any moment.” For her, it feels like the tragedy has only just happened. “It’s hard. It’s very hard.”
The recovery process has been hard on Pastor Haddix, too. “I lost my wife a year and a half ago to COVID. The church flooded and I lost it, and I’ve been there for 21 years. And I watched what’s become my family lose everything,” he said.
The tragedies he has endured have been compounded by the lack of help from state and federal officials and the slowness of funds raised by outside charities to make their way into the region. “We’re tired of the promises,” he said. “We want some action. This area has been promised stuff for 100 years. It’s time to quit promising and time to come do something."
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a graduate student at East Tennessee State University in Appalachian Studies and a staff member of Appalachian Places. He is a contributing editor at 100 Days in Appalachia, and is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in several major news magazines.