A fire truck is seen hanging over the edge of the water propped against a bridge on Wednesday, August 3, 2022, in Hindman, Kentucky, after massive flooding carried the fire truck towards the water. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

A sense of place and strong local leadership can have a big impact on recovery for rural communities that are struck with natural disasters like forest fires, flash floods, and hurricanes. 

But rural areas are also likely to lack some things that improve the chances of a strong recovery: access to temporary housing, young and resilient populations, strong and well funded civic institutions, for example. 

As hurricane season continues, and as Eastern Kentucky counties begin the long and slow process of rebuilding after deadly flash floods, we spoke with Susan L. Cutter at the University of South Carolina. Cutter is a professor and director of the university’s Hazards Vulnerability & Resilience Institute. She studies the science of community resilience and vulnerability. 

We asked Cutter about the unique challenges facing Eastern Kentucky and other rural areas that experience large natural disasters.

Tim Marema, Daily Yonder: Eastern Kentucky is already facing some difficult issues. It’s economically distressed area to begin with. There’s a lack of buildable land. It has a history of flash flooding, but this one was literally off the scale. So with all those kinds of factors in play, what can you say about how recovery there might proceed?

Susan L. Cutter, University of South Carolina: Recovery is an incredibly long process, and I think a lot of people forget that aspect of it because even when you are affluent with resources, it’s still a long process. In communities that are less affluent and are rural, the recovery sometimes is much longer than one would anticipate. And it doesn’t happen with only the internal resources, but also there’s an extraordinary need for external resources to come in and assist in the recovery. 

There’s some inherent resilience in rural communities because they’ve had to, in many ways, subsist on their own resources and pull their own boots up themselves. But when they are overwhelmed to the point that there is no capacity, then those external resources need to come in. It just takes time for those resources not only to get in, but to get to the level that they’re useful for individuals, households, businesses, and so forth. In many rural areas, I think one of the, the large questions that is, “Do we rebuild and reconstruct what was there or do we rebuild or reconstruct better or somewhere else?”

Marema: Is getting back to normal an adequate goal in an area that has been distressed to begin with and for a very long time?

Cutter: Right, right. And then there’s the added issue of where do those displaced people go while you are trying to get back to either normal or something better. In rural areas there are not as many options adjacent to the affected area. And I think that’s particularly true in Eastern Kentucky and, and a lot of Appalachia. There just aren’t that many places for people to while their homes and while their community is being reconstructed, if it’s being reconstructed.

Marema: What have you seen happen historically when disasters strike in a rural areas where there are very few options for temporary housing while families rebuild? 

Cutter: What happens is the there’s a lot of out-migration. People leave, and they seek opportunities elsewhere. You know, they’re given some resources from FEMA to assist, and they simply move out of the area. Others stay in the area and are very much focused on rebuilding, but that rebuilding is — you’re talking years to rebuild and reconstruct communities. In those instances people may start out wanting to reconstruct but ultimately end up leaving. What you’re left with are communities that are smaller than they were before the event, oftentimes. And they sometimes are a little bit less viable in terms of their economic capabilities, because there’s not enough infrastructure there to support them and to support business.

And a lot of it is related to how socially tight the community is. How much of a sense of place there is. … The stronger that sense of place, the more likely people are to try to reconstruct it and make it better. 

Marema: Are there examples of places where things have turned out differently after a disaster?

Cutter: There are two interesting examples. One is in Princeville, North Carolina, a historically Black community in Eastern North Carolina. It periodically flooded and then got hit with numerous hurricane-inspired floods. It was languishing for a while and had that residual vulnerable population. But there was so much interest in preserving that community because of its nature that it’s in essence coming back. But it’s coming back because of the infusion of external resources and external commitments to bring it back.

There’s another example, which is what many people point to is the classic example, which is Valmeyer, Illinois. And that was a community located along the Mississippi River that periodically flooded. That community was very close and socially knit community. They made a decision as a group to physically relocate the town on a bluff instead of down in the flood plain. So they reconstructed the community with most people’s buy-in in, in another location.

Marema: So it sounds like those are exceptions to the rule.

Cutter: I think so. And you know, we have lots of more current examples of flooding that’s occurring in low income vulnerable communities either on a repetitive basis or a major kind of catastrophic event. And what we’re seeing is the slow deterioration of those rural communities that some people stay, some people try to make a go of it, but eventually you know, there’s fewer and fewer people in town, the buildings become abandoned and not functional. Another flood comes and that cycle, that downward cycle continues. 

Marema: Can local leadership and initiative make a difference for long term recovery? 

Cutter: Absolutely. Absolutely. One of the things that you see is if there’s that spark plug — that leadership in a community. It just takes that one person, and that one person can bring them together. … There’s also a lot of what we call peer-to-peer learning. So you have an entrepreneur in one place who knows someone else in the next community and just calls ’em up and says, “We tried this, see if that works for you.” So it, it becomes, you grow your community in a sense, because your community is not bound by the physical community.

Marema: What didn’t I ask about that you think is important?

Cutter: Just keep in mind that recovery is not a nice progression. It’s sort of two steps forward and one step back and then two steps back and two steps forward. It’s not smooth.

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