The day before President Joe Biden was expected to visit her native Breathitt County, Amanda Turner considered what she would want him to know about the situation facing families like hers.
“I hope the one thing he takes away from this is that even though we are poor, we are strong,” said Turner, who waded into waist-deep waters with her husband to wake her nearby relatives so they could escape.
Two of the family’s three homes were destroyed; some of Turner’s relatives are now sleeping in tents on their property, protecting what’s left. She hoped Biden and other officials would have an opportunity to see those living conditions firsthand.
“I think that the best thing that he could do for any of us is to go … (where) people are in tents, go … (where) people can’t get help from FEMA, let them have the trailers first. Some of us are very poor. We have no way of coming back from this. And sometimes we fall through the cracks.”
Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear declared a state of emergency for Kentucky on July 28 after severe flooding struck 14 counties, including Breathitt County, in the Eastern part of the state. As of this reporting, 38 people have died and others remain missing.
President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden visited Eastern Kentucky on Monday, participating in a briefing on the flood at Marie Roberts Elementary School in Breathitt County, visiting families in Lost Creek, and surveying the damage in a nearby neighborhood. Biden vowed federal support to help the 14 counties rebuild after historic flash floods swept away homes, bridges, and roads.
“I promise you… as long as it takes we’re going to be here,” Biden said. “We are committed.”
Beshear praised the federal government’s rapid response to the historic floods while also making a plea to address issues with FEMA approvals and payments.
“Too many people are being denied by FEMA for technicalities and too little is paid to those who get through the system,” Beshear said. “The people of Eastern Kentucky have lost everything. Most just have the clothes left on their back; no insurance, no other coverage. Now is the time to fix this issue.”
Turner said her family members have applied for FEMA assistance, but she hasn’t. She doesn’t believe she and her husband would qualify because they do not have a title to their trailer. Although it’s still standing, there’s damage throughout and they are sleeping in tents inside the trailer.
“We have stripped all the carpet and the flooring out,” she said. “We're just waiting for it to dry.”
“They Were Surrounded”
The night of the flood, Turner and her husband woke to rising water near their home in Breathitt County’s South Fork neighborhood. They looked out to see the water engulfing their family’s neighboring homes.
“They were surrounded,” she said.
Quickly, in the black of the night, they waded into the waist-deep water to wake their relatives. Turner’s ankle caught in the stairs. She urged her husband to hurry on without her. She broke free, cutting her leg, and they all worked in the water trying to save what they could before retreating to her trailer, which was also filling with water.
“There was at least nine people standing in my living room watching in panic,” she said. “My brother and sister-in-law had already watched everything they own go down. Their house was under. My brother-in-law's house was under. And we're in a one room, just looking at each other and hoping and praying. And that's the only thing we could do, was lean on each other.”
“And then, like a miracle, I mean, I don't know how to say this, it was like a miracle. It was like God said, OK, enough for now. And it just stopped. The water stopped.”
On Sunday, she and her husband drove their water-damaged Ford to the IGA store parking lot on Highway 15 in Jackson. Willie Ray’s Q Shack, a restaurant from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, hauled smokers and grills to the region to cook barbecue, beans, and more for flood victims. A long line — men, women, kids, and babies — formed in the sweltering heat.
“Right now with all the help coming in, it shows us a lot of love,” Turner said. “And that's what helps us get up and fight again every day.”
“These Are My People”
Elsewhere in the parking lot, Jon Allen managed an emergency response team deploying humanitarian missions throughout the county. They wanted to make sure residents in far flung corners of the county were being contacted face-to-face, he said, and they were delivering food, water, and other supplies to those unable to come out to get them.
For Allen, the work is personal. His family lost their late grandparents’ home to the flood, and are left only with the memories of being “raised by a village'' at the Allen family home on Troublesome Creek in neighboring Perry County. But he was quick to acknowledge that others have lost much more, including the lives of their loved ones.
“These are my people and I'm just happy I can get back and try to help them get on the road to recovery,” he said.
“A Total Devastation”
Inside the IGA, Kathy Fugate manages the Sunday shift. Eleven of her workers were flooded at their homes. The customers coming into the store showed signs of the disaster too, wearing mud-stained clothes and shoes as they loaded their carts.
“We all know someone that's got flooded, or someone's kin to us that's been flooded,” Fugate said. “We know people that we have lost in our community. It's just been a total devastation.”
Fugate has lived in Breathitt her entire life. She hoped President Biden would see not just the need created by the flood, but also from years of economic hardship in the region.
“We need more help down here,” she said. “We need more jobs down here for these people to stay in the community, to build this community up because this community has been falling apart and it has for a while. We don't need another gas station. We need homes and we need businesses, big businesses, factory jobs for these people down here.”
Enrique Mancillas, 19, the assistant manager at the IGA, said floodwaters severely damaged his grandmother’s home. A year ago, in another flood, its foundation was damaged. A local housing alliance had started a plan to demolish the home and build anew on a nearby plot, but this most recent flood changed those plans. The housing organization told them they need to reevaluate whether building in the same area makes sense.
“This flood completely buckled her house, well, what was left of it,” he said.
Previous floods weighed on Fugate’s mind, too. After a flood in 1984, her father moved their family uphill to avoid future flooding. For the first time ever, water reached that home. She could barely look at the video her family sent of water filling in under the porch. It was supposed to be safe.
“When they sent me that video, I cried because the floods are getting faster and they're getting larger every time they come here,” Fugate said, “and there's nothing that nobody can do about it.”
What can be done — not just to rebuild but to prevent future catastrophic weather — is on the minds of many in these valleys and hills. The White House points to hope in the $330 billion investment in climate and energy reform from the Inflation Reduction Act.
“Over the long term, these investments will save lives, reduce costs, (and) protect communities like the one we are visiting today,” Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters before heading to Kentucky Monday.
Still, here in Breathitt County, with the threat of more rain and floods in the forecast this week, Eastern Kentuckians are focused on the immediate needs of their neighbors: food, water, and shelter. Monetary donations and manpower for mucking out and rebuilding homes. A safe return to school for their children.
“It’s going to be a long process,” Fugate said. “Just so many people have lost everything.”