Why major flooding won't drive eastern Kentucky families away

Heavy rains have produced severe flooding in eastern Kentucky, leaving some 26 people dead. But many say they'll stay because they have deep connections with people that have sustained them through good times and bad.

AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley
Bonnie Combs, right, hugs her 10-year-old granddaughter Adelynn Bowling watches as her property becomes covered by the North Fork of the Kentucky River in Jackson, Ky., Thursday, July 28, 2022.

Evelyn Smith lost her home and everything in it in the deadly floods that devastated eastern Kentucky, saving only her grandson's muddy tricycle. But she's not planning to leave the mountains that have been her home for 50 years.

Like many families in this dense, forested region of hills, deep valleys and meandering streams, Smith's roots run deep. Her family has lived in Knott County for five generations. They've built connections with people that have sustained them, even as an area long mired in poverty has hemorrhaged more jobs with the collapse of the coal industry.

After fast-rising floodwaters from nearby Troublesome Creek swamped her rental trailer, Smith moved in with her mother. At age 50 she is disabled and knows she won't be going back to where she lived; her landlord told her he won't put trailers back in the same spot. Smith, who didn't have insurance, doesn't know what her next move will be.

“I’ve cried until I really can’t cry no more," she said. "I’m just in shock. I don’t really know what to do now.”

The devastation is expected to mount in the state. Gov. Andy Beshear said Sunday that the death toll had risen to 26 and was expected to rise.

“There is widespread damage with many families displaced and more rain expected throughout the next day,” Beshear said via Twitter.

As many as 37 people were unaccounted for, according to a daily briefing from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

On top of that, more flash flooding was possible in portions of Appalachia on Sunday and Monday as the latest storms roll through, the National Weather Service said. Rainfall rates of 1 to 2 inches per hour were possible in some of the same areas that were inundated last week.

A dozen shelters were open for flood victims in Kentucky with 388 occupants on Sunday, according to FEMA.

For many people who lost their homes, connections with family and neighbors will only grow in importance in the aftermath of the floods, which wiped out homes and businesses and engulfed small towns. Still, in a part of the state that includes seven of the 100 poorest counties in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, they may not be enough for people already living on the margins.

“People who are poor in east Kentucky are really some of the most disadvantaged people in our entire country,” said Evan Smith, an attorney with the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund, which provides free legal services for low-income and vulnerable people. “And for those who have now lost vehicles, homes, loved ones, it’s hard for me to see how they bounce back from this."

“I mean, people will,” Smith added. "People are more resilient than we can imagine at times. But without some type of state and national help, I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

He thinks some people who can afford to leave will do so, with younger people — less likely than their elders to try to rebuild where they are — more likely to look for jobs elsewhere.

Coal once dominated the economy of this corner of the Appalachian Mountains, offering the best-paying jobs in a place that had difficulty sustaining other kinds of work, but production has plunged by some 90% since the heyday of 1990, according to a state report. And as production declined, the jobs went away.

The record floods “couldn’t have come at a worse time,” said Doug Holliday, a 73-year-old attorney in Hazard, Kentucky, who represents miners with black lung disease and other health problems.

”The coal business has been petering out and a lot of people have left," Holliday said. "The people who are left live paycheck-to-paycheck or on Social Security, and most of them live in mobile homes on the very edge of the economy."

Holliday thinks an old friend died in one of those mobile homes, which was swept away by floodwaters and hasn't been seen since. He isn't the only one trying to account for people in what Beshear called “one of the worst, most devastating flooding events" in Kentucky's history.

There's a chance the legacy of the coal industry, diminished though it is, made the flooding worse. The hardest hit areas of eastern Kentucky received between 8 and 10 1/2 inches (20-27 centimeters) of rain over 48 hours, and the degradation of the land wrought by coal mining might have altered the landscape enough to help push rivers and creeks to crest at record levels.

“Decades upon decades of strip mining and mountaintop-removal mining leaves the land unable to help absorb some of that runoff during periods of high rainfall,” said Emily Satterwhite, director of Appalachian Studies at Virginia Tech.

The North Fork of the Kentucky River reached 20.9 feet (6.4 meters) in Whitesburg — more than 6 feet (1.8 meters) over the previous record — and crested at a record 43.5 feet (13.25 meters) in Jackson, said National Weather Service meteorologist Brandon Bonds.

Melinda Hurd, 27, was forced from her home in Martin, Kentucky, on Thursday afternoon when the Big Sandy River rose to her front steps — and then kept coming.

“As soon as I stepped off my steps it was waist high," she said. She is staying with two of her dogs at Jenny Wiley State Park in Prestonsburg, about 20 minutes from her home.

Hurd’s neighbors weren’t as fortunate; some were stuck on their roofs, waiting to be rescued.

“I know our whole basement is destroyed," she said. "But I feel very, very lucky. I don’t think it will be a total loss.”

Hurd works a cash job caring for an elderly woman, meaning she has no insurance or benefits.

Hurd’s home also flooded in 2009 on Mother’s Day, nearly destroying everything inside. She received financial help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency then, and will likely need more help this time around.

At a briefing with Beshear, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said more help is on the way. And the governor opened an online portal for donations to flood victims.

Among the stories of survival that continue to emerge, a 17-year-old girl whose home in Whitesburg was flooded Thursday put her dog in a plastic container and swam 70 yards to safety on a neighbor’s roof. Chloe Adams waited hours until daylight before a relative in a kayak arrived and moved them to safety, first taking her dog, Sandy, and then the teenager.

“My daughter is safe and whole tonight,” her father, Terry Adams, said in a Facebook post. “We lost everything today … everything except what matters most.”

Satterwhite said many residents will want to remain, kept in place by attachments to extended families and support networks that sustain them through good times and bad.

Smith, the woman who salvaged her 2-year-old grandson’s trike, said fast-rising water forced her from her trailer around 1:30 a.m. Thursday.

“Everything in it has got mud all over it,” she said. “There’s probably 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 centimeters) of mud in the rooms. The walls are all water-logged all the way up.”

Despite all that, she's not leaving Knott County. She doesn't think she ever could.

“It’s the mountains," she said. “It’s the land, it’s the people that connect together to make it a home.”


Contributors include Anita Snow in Phoenix and Mike Schneider in Orlando, Fla. Selsky reported from Salem, Ore. and Schreiner from Frankfort, Ky.

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