Some ‘in limbo’ more than a year after deadly floods hit Eastern Kentucky

Published 10:30 am Thursday, August 17, 2023

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By Sarah Ladd

Kentucky Lantern

More than a year after four feet of water flooded her house, Nancy Herald still doesn’t know when – or if – she’ll return to the home that’s been in her family for nearly five decades.

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Driving past the homeplace, even, is too painful. Sometimes she goes inside; sometimes she just passes quietly.

And sometimes, she said, she cries.

Herald was one of many in Eastern Kentucky who had to evacuate when heavy rain and flash flooding hit Appalachian communities.

The water destroyed homes, displaced thousands of Kentuckians and killed at least 44 people. From July 26-30, 2022, up to 16 inches of rain fell, flooding creeks and rivers, according to the National Weather Service.

Breathitt County, where Herald lives, was among the worst-hit areas. Many who suffered damage in 2022 were also victims of the February 2021 floods, meaning many had to rebuild their entire lives twice.

Doing it a third time is unthinkable.

“I still am not comfortable with … going back just because I’m afraid it’ll flood again,” Herald said of her homeplace. “And … I just don’t want to have to go through that again.”

Herald isn’t alone in that worry.

Dana Fugate, who lives in Jackson and serves as the Secretary of the Long Term Recovery Team in Breathitt County, said “people are at different stages in recovery.”

How far they’ve come depends on if they had flood insurance, among other factors.

Some are back home after a year of rebuilding, Fugate said. “But then you still have people who are in limbo,” like the person who recently started rebuilding after a full year.

“Resources are drying up, as they do,” Fuagte added. “Out of sight out of mind. And people don’t really understand that there’s still a great need.”

Volunteer skilled labor is in high demand, she said. Breathitt Countians need plumbers and electricians and people to help remove debris.

“Some are just needing some finishing touches, some are needing major repair still,” Fugate said.

One major change the federal government should address is making sure that recipients of disaster relief money get access to financial literacy education, according to Jamie Mullins-Smith, the co-chair of Breathitt County’s Long Term Recovery Team.

That’s because not everyone knows how to manage thousands of dollars and how to invest it in a way that will aid their long term recovery, Mullins-Smith said. And once the money has been spent, it’s too late.

“There needs to be some financial literacy and some accountability on the federal government with that. When they hand these individuals this funding, it’s very hard for them to understand exactly what that’s for,” she said.

Sometimes that comes down to a recipient just not understanding the instructions.

“We at a local level are kind of left to deal with that,” Mullins-Smith said. Case managers can help guide survivors and make sure they don’t get duplicate services. There are a little fewer than 400 people in Breathitt County still under case management, she said.

The biggest issue, several told the Lantern, is housing, which is a “major problem” that persists.

Breathitt County Circuit Clerk James Elliot Turner estimates about 500 people have left his county – many because of the “housing crisis.”

They’re going to nearby areas that have homes, like Perry County, he said. “Population is dropping every day in this county until we get good housing – affordable housing,” he said.

Breathitt County was already poor before back-to-back floods, he said.

But the water meant “the poor got poorer.”

“The folks that have lost loved ones … don’t ever recover from that loss,” he said. But also: “People have lost their homes for a second time in less than a year, buddy, it’s just devastating.”

Emotional toll tarries

A year to a year and a half after a disaster, many people experience high levels of hopelessness and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to The Center for Disaster Philanthropy.

People working on the ground say some people in Eastern Kentucky have more depression, anxiety and general stress. When it rains, people worry.

“The barrier is getting our survivors to understand that there is some value to addressing your mental health,” said Mullins-Smith. “We (are) promising you that if you will at least reach out that there (are) resources for you. There’s therapists, there’s coping skills that we can teach you.”

Some don’t reach out because of the general stigma surrounding mental health, she said. Others just want to get back to the way things were.

Many have an “overwhelming desire to want to find some normalcy,” she said. “So they prioritize their recovery over their mental health, which only exacerbates it.”

Outside of therapy, there are coping skills that can help reduce and manage stress day-to-day that Mullins-Smith shares with people.

They include:

  • Yoga
  • Music
  • Relaxation
  • Listening to a sound machine (but not rain)
  • Journaling
  • Setting realistic goals. You can’t rebuild a house in one day, but you maybe can paint a wall.
  • Take a deep breath
  • Walk away from what you’re doing and do a positive activity
  • Close your eyes
  • Schedule time for yourself
  • Get a stress ball

Higher Ground

There is a continued need for affordable housing, especially in the form of apartment complexes, in this area of Eastern Kentucky, locals said.

“There was a housing issue before the flood,” Fugate said. “And … afterwards, it’s just … 10 times worse.”

Some intended to move to higher ground or away, Fugate said, but were not able to do so. Instead they returned to the floodplain, knowing they could lose everything again.

“Hopefully, we’ve had our 1,000-year flood and it won’t happen again for quite some time,” she said.

The state is working on “higher ground communities” to get people out of the Eastern Kentucky flood plains. Gov. Andy Beshear’s administration has announced four so far in Knott, Perry and Floyd counties.

He’s said that “we can’t just rebuild, we also need to revitalize” Eastern Kentucky, which includes building in a way that is resilient in the face of possible future floods.

Meanwhile, Herald can’t bring herself to sell her homeplace.

She’s lucky, she said, to have found a new house outside the floodplain, on higher ground.

She just watches as the seasons pass, studying the weather and what it does to houses that, like her old one, are in the floodplain.

“Emotionally, psychologically, I’m not ready to let go of the old house yet,” Herald said. “There’s still a real strong emotional attachment there because it was my home for so long.”