EDITOR’S NOTE: As of October 14, 2022, 43 people have died as a result of the flooding in Eastern Kentucky.
Teresa Collins stepped onto her porch Thursday morning, July 28, just in time to see water begin to inundate the low-lying section of her neighborhood in Whitesburg, Kentucky.
At first she couldn’t tell what was happening.
“In the distance I could see this creamy brown color, and I was thinking, ‘Is that somebody’s house or is that water?’”
The answer came quickly.
“There were people scurrying around … beating on doors, telling people to get out,” she said. “The water was rising so quickly. It was just astonishing to watch. It was like a slow-motion disaster.”
The neighborhood, called Upper Bottom, lies along a bend in the North Fork of the Kentucky River. It’s accessible by two bridges, which quickly became submerged. Some neighbors got their vehicles to higher ground. Others ran up the hill on foot. The remainder were trapped in their homes.
For the rest of the day, first responders and volunteers attempted to use kayaks and other watercraft to try to rescue those who were trapped.
In the meantime, Collins started cooking pancakes and making coffee. Her granddaughter helped distribute food to people congregated on the hill.
“There were people just everywhere, just crying and crying and crying,” Collins said. “One man screamed, ‘We couldn’t save anything. We couldn’t get anything out.’ Some people couldn’t even get their cellphone out. They just grabbed their kids and their shoes and ran.”
Clean up began as soon as the water receded, Collins said.
“It’s just been days and days of people dragging stuff out” of their homes, Collins said.
A Regional Disaster
Upper Bottom lies along a 2,000-foot bend in the North Fork of the Kentucky River. From Whitesburg, the North Fork flows another 155 miles or so and has thousands of miles of tributaries that also flooded in the record-breaking deluge on July 28. The damage is extensive, widespread, and without precedent in a region that is all too familiar with flooding.
Fourteen Eastern Kentucky counties — including some in the basins of the Middle and South Forks of the Kentucky River — have declared a state of emergency. So far, 38 deaths have been attributed to the catastrophic flood. Many more people are still missing. (The death toll was 39 as of August 17, 2022.)
The region is no stranger to flash floods. Narrow valleys with steep hillsides offer no way for water to dissipate. With nowhere to go, the waters pile higher, leading to floods that can rise quickly in a scrubbing torrent.
But this flood was much worse. In Whitesburg, the water crested six feet higher than the record-breaking flood of 1957, an event older generations still discuss with disbelief 65 years later.
(Whitesburg is the headquarters of the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder. Collins has worked for Rural Strategies for most of the organization’s 21-year history.)
The region is also one of the most rural in the U.S., measured by the proportion of population that lives outside urbanized areas. Of the counties that have declared states of emergency, only 10% of the 260,000 residents live in a town of more than 2,500 residents.
Early Recovery Efforts
The dispersed settlement patterns make relief and recovery difficult.
Tarence Ray is part of a group of self-organized volunteers who have been taking supplies to smaller communities in Letcher and nearby Knott County. He said his informal group has been connecting with others through East Kentucky Mutual Aid.
Small communities outside county seats have been slow to get help in the early days after the flood, he said. State and federal officials are staging larger responses, but Ray said self-organized volunteers have been crucial for near-term acute needs. He and others have been delivering supplies and reporting what they learn to other volunteers.
Ray said Fleming-Neon, a city of about 600 located on tributaries of the North Fork, was one of the hardest-hit communities he saw with his own eyes. Water surged directly through the town, with disastrous results.
“You’ve got cars turned every which way – cars in houses, houses on houses. A whole building was picked up from its foundation. It was unmoored and tilted.”
He said the town government established a temporary headquarters.
“They had set up a makeshift city hall in like a muddy parking lot with a popup tent with a sign that said, ‘City Hall’ spray painted on the side.”
When he offered the supplies in the bed of his pickup, town leaders seemed surprised, Ray said. “No one has been bringing them anything [as of Saturday or Sunday]. There's some National Guard working on it, but not nearly enough.”
Ray said goods that were most in demand were water, hygiene items like soap and toothbrushes, cleaning supplies, disinfectant, and diapers.
County officials are staging a supply depot at Letcher County Central High School, according to a Facebook post via the county’s weekly newspaper, The Mountain Eagle. A shelter is established at the county’s Extension Service building.
The need for food varied by location, Ray said. In Isom, where flood waters destroyed the contents of the IGA, the community’s only grocery store, food may be more of an issue than in some other locations.
Collins with the Center for Rural Strategies said despite losing everything in the flood, the grocery store’s owner, Gwenn Christon, was focusing on others’ needs. “I saw them yesterday,” Collins said. “Gwen and her husband [Arthur] were down there giving out water and supplies to other people who were in need, instead of worrying about themselves.”
One of Letcher County’s primary medical providers, Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation, also sustained damage and set up a temporary clinic at the former Whitesburg High School.
Van Breeding, M.D., director of clinical affairs, said in a Facebook post that Mountain Comp had lost its lab, X-ray and dental equipment, and much of its clinical supplies, plus its entire billing and administration building. Hundreds of families in Letcher County alone lost their medical supplies in the flood. The clinic is focusing on replacing residents’ medications and medical equipment, plus treating medical and dental emergencies.
“We will be open but are literally using paper charts, stethoscopes and cell phones to try to take care of people,” Breeding said in the post.
The doctor, who is from Letcher County and was named Country Doctor of the Year in 2017, has also been posting video updates on Facebook.
One story that has received international attention is the impact of the flood on Appalshop, the acclaimed Appalachian cultural and media arts center in Whitesburg.
The organization’s building, located directly beside the North Fork, had several feet of water on its first floor. The flood destroyed the on-air studio of community radio station WMMT and the organization’s performing arts theater. Appalshop also sustained major damage to its archives, which includes audio/visual materials covering more than a half-century of Appalachian culture and social issues.
Despite its own needs, Appalshop has been compiling a list of ways people can contribute to a wide range of relief efforts focused on Eastern Kentucky.
‘We Can’t Do It Alone’
The flood did not directly affect the staff or office of the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder.
Rural Strategies President and Daily Yonder Publisher Dee Davis said he was grateful for scores of inquiries from friends and professional colleagues around the country.
Davis said the recovery efforts in Whitesburg reminded him of how rural communities responded after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in rural Louisiana in 2005. Davis and other Rural Strategies production staff visited Louisiana and Mississippi numerous times to document recovery and rebuilding efforts along the Gulf Coast after the hurricanes.
“What we saw there is that it takes a lot to rebuild,” Davis said. “It takes finances. It takes good policy. But mostly it takes neighbors pitching in and helping. And sometimes the problems are so big that the neighborhood has to expand. You can't do it all just in your community. You have to be able to accept help from others, too.”
He said he hopes governments and nonprofit groups get organized quickly to provide ways for others to help in Eastern Kentucky.
“There are a lot of people in this country who want to do something, who want to pitch in and help. They may not understand philanthropic systems, but they understand how to muck out a flooded house or rebuild a bedroom. What I saw in Louisiana was so many people who felt like they could actually do something, they felt really empowered to help people. It wasn't abstract. It was real. And they stepped up.
“I'm hoping that they can help us here too.”
What Lies in Store?
Like the recovery after Katrina and Rita, restoration in Eastern Kentucky will be a years-long process. It's unclear how communities that were already living on the margins of the U.S. economy will respond. And it's unclear whether it's even safe to start thinking that far into the future.
A few minutes after we published the first version of this story, Ray sent a text. For some areas, the floods had returned.
"Neon and that area, as well as parts of Knott [County], started flooding again this morning [August 1]," he wrote.
And more rain is in the forecast.
For information on how to help, visit Appalshop's website.