Flood victims in Appalachian Eastern Kentucky are all the same story: They lost their homes, which they lived for decades. Property that was safe for generations, and were forced to flee by the torrential rainfall that has lasted 1,000 years.
“My papaw was almost 80 years old. He lost everything in the house that he has lived in since he was two years old,” says Lakyn Bolen, 26, a resident of Knott County, where 14 inches of rain fell. “It’s nothing that we’re used to, we don’t get stuff like this. And the thing is, a lot of the people in this area don’t have flood insurance because they’re not even in a flood zone.”
Bolen’s grandfathers home is flooded and covered with mud. On the bed, Bolen’s grandfather has piled boxes of photos and papers from his family. They tried to save them in Knott County Kentucky July 29th 2022.
Lakyn Bolen shared
Officials are counting how many homes were destroyed or people who fled across Appalachia. At least 38 people died including four children., More information is still unavailable. The National Weather Service reported that the rainfall over July 26-29 was “historically unheard of,” with less than a one in 1,000 chance of it happening over any given four-day period in the region.
The next step is unclear. This region still suffers from power outages as well as a lack clean water supply and damaged roads. But residents tell TIME that they are determined to rebuild in the same areas—partly out of tradition, partly because they have no choice. But many fear that they will lose their homes due to climate change or the impact of legacy mining activities in the region.
“The history here is so long and rich. Many people ask why flood zones are built on. You know, if you’ve been here, there’s not a lot of flat land, and it’s generational land that’s handed down to families. So of course, they’re going to put a trailer on the land they inherited from grandma,” Charly Wise, Executive Director of the Floyd County Chamber of Commerce, tells TIME. “Climate change changed everything.”
Continue reading: Kentucky is now suffering from high heat and humidity after being hit by the deadly floods.
Wise adds: “The damage from all the strip mining here for years took a lot away, a lot of the natural protection of the hills from getting flooded. A lot has changed.”
Climate Change and Coal
The unique topography of Appalachia consists of steep, rugged mountains that enable rain to move quickly and cause flash flooding because there’s not much soil to absorb the water. Climate change has exacerbated severe weather.
“This is clearly not a local phenomenon, this is a result of climate change,” Chris Barton, a professor of forest hydrology and watershed management at the University of Kentucky, says. “When you have extreme heat, you get more evaporation, more transpiration, more moisture in the atmosphere. When that atmosphere becomes saturated, that water has to come down and unfortunately, when it comes down in a place, like it did (here) that’s not really adept at dealing with those types of rainfall amounts, the results are going to be devastating.”
Scientists have also linked faster flooding to mined mountains, of which Appalachia has a lot. Appalachia was the primary source of coal used in the U.S. until 1970, meaning the area’s mining history plays another major role in flooding.
“In the early 1900s, this country needed coal to build it,” Jim Stewart, a member of the Floyd County Community Foundation who’s been organizing recovery efforts, says. “We burned coal, that’s why we’ve got global warming, that’s why it’s warmer than it’s supposed to be. That’s why we’re getting more rain than we’re supposed to get.”
“This is my lifelong home where all my family is. What we’ve lost, it’s not materialistic things, it’s sentimental value. Many people have left their houses and land to their family members, as well as their grandchildren. That’s what makes it home,” Danielle Eckles, Bolen’s sister and a Letcher County resident, tells TIME. “It’s not a house, it’s not a vehicle, it’s the people around you that you know, love you. People that don’t even like each other are helping each other in this time, because that’s what we do.”
Eckles, her husband and their three children fled the single-wide trailer they shared when flooding started. They had to rush for diapers and baby formula. Eckles said that by the time the couple got outside, the water had reached their calves. Shortly afterward, the flood swept away the trailer. Eckles, her family and friends are now staying with close relatives. They plan to relocate somewhere within the vicinity.
View of Bolen’s grandfather’s home during the flooding in Knott County (Kentucky), Aug. 2022.
Lakyn Bolen shared
Appalachian Kentucky’s poverty rate was 24.5 percent in 2010 compared with the 15.6% national average. This is according to Fahe (a non-profit that empowers Appalachian communities). The decline in coal mining work yielded generational poverty and low incomes throughout the region—which is a crucial factor considering that impoverished communities usually suffer the most damage from natural disasters.
“This is going to take time to recover,” says Bolen. “They’ve already estimated the cleanup to be five to seven years. Not only that, but the impact that it’s had on mental health in Appalachia, it’s unreal.”
Old stereotypes resurface after flooding
Many people in the region said they also had to face negative social media messages criticizing Appalachians since the floods. This commentary stems from misinformation about flooding patterns in the area and an inability to understand that it has become worse.
“For people saying that we need to move out; ‘Why would we live somewhere where this stuff happens?’ We didn’t know this was gonna happen,” says Bolen. “People went to bed that night not knowing what was going to happen and a lot of people never woke up from their sleep because their houses literally washed down the road.”
Similar hate speech has been prompted by political affiliations. Eckles discusses how Internet trolls use a victim-blaming mentality to attack conservative-voting flood victims. The region voted heavily in favor of President Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020—with up to 90% of residents supporting him. “[The flood] didn’t stop at someone’s house and ask who they voted for,” says Eckles. “It didn’t look at their ballot before it flooded their home.”
Wise mentions a drawing depicting flooding that was published in The Lexington Herald-Leader, captioned, “When it rains, it rains on the poor,” that people in her community found offensive. Wise said that Eastern Kentucky’s reputation is plagued by stereotypes, as it is throughout Kentucky. (The cartoon is not meant to be disrespectful of Eastern Kentucky residents, but was intended to reflect on the hardships they have faced.
These outdated biases also lead to fears that some residents won’t get the help they are entitled. On Aug. 9, Kentucky Gov. Andrew Beshear attacked reports that Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was refusing claims to help flood victims from Eastern Kentucky. “Let me say to people applying for disaster assistance: No. 1, do not give up,” Beshear says. “No. 2, if you’re denied, go and look these people in the eye.
Local politicians have highlighted that some payouts are just a few thousand dollars—far too little to rebuild and replace a lifetime worth of belongings.
Continue reading: Biden joins Kentucky Governor for a Survey of Flooding that Killed Dozens
Wise, Eckles, Bolen and Stewart were all born and raised in Eastern Kentucky and it’s where they intend to stay. They agree that it’s going to take creativity to adapt to the evolving environment of 21st-century Appalachia.
“Intuitively, I would say, you’re probably asking for trouble if you’re gonna stay there if these types of storms are going to become more and more frequent, but at the same time, there’s a real sense of place,” says Barton. “With that thought in mind, you really do want to look and see what alternatives there are; Different types of housing, can you move them up the side of the mountain just a little bit.”
A “family Bible” is a document that records details of the lineage back to generations. Many Appalachians treasure it. Bolen’s family dry out theirs after the Flood, Knott County in Kentucky, July 29th 2022.
Lakyn Bolen shared
According to the Kentuckians, people might disagree about their decision to build and live somewhere that is becoming more dangerous but every landscape changes and everyone can adapt to remain in one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
“The people of Appalachia are very resilient and we will overcome it,” says Bolen. “I have no doubt in my mind that we’ll just come back better than we were.”
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