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Eastern Kentucky's people looked for a fresh start after coal. Then came the floods

Updated August 6, 2022 at 5:55 PM ET

WHITESBURG, Ky. — When the small creek in front of Brian Lucas' Kentucky home turned into a roaring river one night in late July, he fled with his wife, two kids, dog and cat out the back and up the side of a hill.

Since then, they have been staying with relatives while they deal with insurance adjusters, following the historic flooding in eastern Kentucky that so far has claimed 37 lives.

Lucas considers himself lucky. Still, the only home his children — ages 10 and 15 — have ever known is a total loss.

Standing in the mud on what was his front yard, he told NPR, "I have no intentions of leaving eastern Kentucky. I don't care how high the water gets. But do I want to live here? Probably not."

The immediate challenges of disaster relief in this part of Appalachia involve getting food, water and medicine to remote communities. The floods have also interrupted efforts to build a post-coal economy in eastern Kentucky, and displaced residents in a region where affordable houses are already hard to come by and flat land suitable for building new ones is scarce.

The inland floods, a type of disaster made worse by climate change, stretched across at least seven counties. Hundreds of families have moved into government-run shelters, according to Gov. Andy Beshear's office.

Lucas and his family have been staying with his in-laws, just across the street from his waterlogged house in Isom, Ky., and a few miles from where he grew up.

"Family is a big thing here. You have families that live close to each other and have lived close to each other their whole lives," he said.

Piecing together a sense of normalcy following tragedy

Health care and education have emerged as the largest employers in parts of eastern Kentucky as coal production waned in the region.

Lucas' family is intimately aware of these economic shifts. His father was a coal truck driver who Lucas said kept getting laid off, so he went back to school to become a nurse at Appalachian Regional Healthcare — one of the single largest employers in the region. Lucas now manages medical equipment there.

Dozens of ARH employees have lost their homes. The organization has provided housing to some, as well as sending supplies to communities up in the mountains, according to Tim Hatfield, an executive who oversees six of the ARH's hospitals. The organization also lent Lucas a truck to drive after the flood destroyed his vehicles.

Another thing that defines this area, Lucas said, is that people take care of each other and take pride in fending for themselves — even in the face of tragedy. That's one reason why, with everything else going on, he visited his local barber after the flood.

"That's a small business. If you're not spending money at that small business who got hit by the flood, too, guess what? They don't exist anymore," he said.

Several organizations, such as the Mountain Association, had been trying to revitalize and diversify the local economy and create jobs in the region before the floods.

"This is not a place that corporate America is going to invest in," Betsy Whaley, chief strategy officer with the Association, told NPR.

After the disaster, they plan to provide small loans to stabilize small businesses but will need more resources to help dig businesses out of the hole the floods put them in, she said.

Local businesses and organizations brace for economic hardship

The decline of coal mining led to mass layoffs in the area, and many have pulled up stakes and moved away. Now, Whaley worries that climate change, which makes inland flooding like this worse, is creating another challenge for the region. And that could mean more residents will leave.

Painstaking efforts to build up small businesses have been literally washed away overnight. Whaley shared the example of Gwen Christon, who owns an IGA grocery store in Isom.

Christon poured money into upgrades, such as a new HVAC system, coolers and solar panels before the flooding began, Whaley said.

Getting the store ready to open again would be prohibitively expensive, Christon told The Herald-Leader, but if it closes for good, the community loses a vital business.

"Where her store is, is a food desert," Whaley said.

Another major institution, the schools, have also suffered. During a recent meeting convened by the Kentucky Department of Education, Letcher County school superintendent Denise Yonts broke down when describing their losses: two staff members dead, six schools damaged.

"Our community as a whole is devastated," she told attendees.

Districts across the region are pushing back their start dates as administrators scramble to find enough undamaged space for students.

One challenge is just how rural the area is. Going to a different school might mean an extended commute along winding mountain roads.

Poverty is another persistent challenge that about a quarter of the people of the flooded counties face, according to U.S. Census data.

"The unfortunate part is some of the communities hit were some of the most impoverished," said Perry County superintendent Jonathan Jett.

He worries this disaster could be the final straw for many who have lived here for generations.

"I think people if they leave here, they're never coming back," Jett said.

The rebuilding process begins

Getting clean water, finding new homes, and removing mud and mold from flood-damaged buildings are among the immediate concerns plaguing most of eastern Kentucky.

In Hindman, Ky., where the downtown flooded, Doug Naselroad stood Thursday in the storefront that houses his stringed instrument-building school, the Appalachian School of Luthiery.

Naselroad also runs the Troublesome Creek Stringed Instrument Company, named for the brook that runs through town. It's the same creek that deposited the fine brown mud throughout the school and factory, ruining guitars and expensive equipment.

"I love the people of Hindman. I love my guys. I hate that creek," Naselroad said.

The school also has a social mission, training people referred from drug court and local recovery centers to craft high-quality instruments. Some get so skilled, they are hired to work in the factory, Naselroad said.

"I have some people who are having extreme psychological distress, and for people in recovery, this is not a good thing," he said.

Even though the first order of business is mucking out the building and using lots of Lysol, Naselroad said he is already thinking about ways to spin what happened into a new opportunity.

He plans to keep payroll going for his staff. Maybe they'll make a special run of dulcimers from wood that survived the flood, he said.

"I am thinking rebuilding a factory would be good. We're going to take care of them, come hell or high water," he said, laughing. "But that's the truth, hell or high water." Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript:

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As floodwaters recede in rural Eastern Kentucky, residents are taking stock of the devastation. The floods, made worse by climate change, stretched across seven counties, killing 37 people. Hundreds are in government-run shelters. Food, water and medicine need to get to remote areas, and people have been displaced from an area with few houses and not much flat land for building new ones. NPR's Laura Benshoff reports that the floods have also interrupted efforts to rebuild the post-coal economy in Central Appalachia.

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: It was just over a week ago that Brian Lucas evacuated his wife, two kids, dog and cat from their mobile home as the water from the small creek in front of their house turned into a roaring river. And right now he needs a break from dealing with the aftermath.

BRIAN LUCAS: Yes, this is what they call Pine Mountain.

BENSHOFF: Why did you want to show this to us?

LUCAS: This is the reason why we're here. I mean, this is the beautiful mountains. You know, you don't see below right now the flood and disaster.

BENSHOFF: All you can see is a carpet of lush green peaks up here. But down the mountain in rural Isom, Ky., the only home his kids have ever known is a total loss. Lucas and his family have been staying with his in-laws just across the street and a few miles from where he grew up.

LUCAS: Yeah. You know, that's the thing about eastern Kentucky. It's family, and family is a big thing here. And so you have families that live close to each other and have lived close to each other their whole lives, you know?

BENSHOFF: That priority defines the region for many even as it's undergone huge changes. Where coal used to be king, the largest employer in much of eastern Kentucky is now the hospital system. Lucas' father was a coal truck driver who got laid off, so he became a nurse there, and now Lucas manages medical equipment for the same company. He says another thing that defines this area is a sense that no one from the outside is going to come in and save them.

LUCAS: We went today and actually got a haircut, and somebody said, well, why would you want to go get a haircut? Because it's a normal thing. That's a small business. If you're not spending money, that small business who got hit by the flood, too - guess what? They don't exist anymore.

BENSHOFF: He and many others here use one word over and over when describing residents. That word is resilient. But Betsy Whaley with the Mountain Association, a nonprofit that does economic development work, says that comes from living through more than your fair share of hardship.

BETSY WHALEY: I mean, it's like one of those things that you say to people who've been kicked a lot. Oh, they're gritty. They can take it. And nobody wants to, right? Nobody wants to need grit.

BENSHOFF: She says the coal bust caused mass layoffs, and many people pulled up stakes and moved away. Now she's worried that climate change, which makes inland flooding like this worse, is creating another challenge for the region. Groups like Whaley's have been trying to revitalize and diversify the economy to create jobs in post-coal Appalachia.

WHALEY: A lot of wealth has been exported from this region. And so we've been supporting small businesses with lending business support, helping communities organize themselves and try to take back power and make sure that wealth stays local.

BENSHOFF: Now, she says, some painstaking efforts to build up small businesses have literally washed away overnight. She gives the example of a local woman who owns a grocery store and spent the last 10 years upgrading it.

WHALEY: New lighting, new HVAC, new coolers, you know, that are energy-efficient. She just put solar on the building. She had six feet of water in there. It's a total loss. Where her store is is a food desert.

BENSHOFF: Another major institution, the schools, have also suffered. During a recent meeting with the Kentucky Department of Education, Letcher County School Superintendent Denise Yonts says six schools were damaged, and there's been a more tragic toll.

DENISE YONTS: Unfortunately, we lost two staff members. Our community as a whole is devastated (crying).

BENSHOFF: The fall semester is being pushed back across the region as districts scramble to find enough undamaged space for students. One challenge is just how spread out the communities here are. Going to a different school might mean going over a mountain to a different county. Another is that about a quarter of people in the flooded area live below the poverty line, and Perry County Superintendent Jonathan Jett says many of his district's poorest families were the hardest-hit.

JONATHAN JETT: They lived in trailers that were 50 years old, homes that were 80 or 100 years old. They've never had a mortgage payment. They've never had homeowner's insurance. So if they do rebuild, FEMA's probably not going to cover all of that.

BENSHOFF: He says he worries that this disaster could be the final straw for many who've lived here for generations.

JETT: And I'm really concerned that we may lose people from our communities because I think people - if they leave here, they're never coming back.

BENSHOFF: These are long-term concerns. Right now there are more immediate problems - getting clean water, finding a place to live, getting the mud and mold out of homes and businesses.

DOUG NASALROAD: I'll probably have to take this upstairs to the bathtub.

BENSHOFF: In Hindman, Ky., where the downtown flooded, Doug Nasalroad stands in the storefront that houses his stringed instrument building school. He runs the Troublesome Creek Stringed Instrument Company, named for the brook that runs through town. He picks up a dulcimer.

NASALROAD: This one was fished out of the floodwaters at Troublesome Creek. You know, this one is probably still playable (playing dulcimer) - almost in tune.

BENSHOFF: It's the same creek that deposited the fine brown mud coating mandolins, guitars and expensive woodworking equipment, the same creek that makes it hard to think about rebuilding right now.

NASALROAD: I love the people of Hindman. I love my guys. I hate that creek (laughter). I hate that creek.

BENSHOFF: Nasalroad's school is also a social enterprise. He trains people coming from drug court or local recovery centers to craft high-quality instruments. Some wind up working at the company's factory. Nasalroad says this has upended their lives, too.

NASALROAD: I have some people who are having extreme psychological distress. And, you know, for people in recovery, this is not a good thing.

BENSHOFF: Even though the first order of business is mucking out the building and lots of Lysol, Nasalroad is already thinking about ways to spin what's happened into a new opportunity. Maybe they'll make a special run of dulcimers from the wood that survived the flood.

NASALROAD: We'll find something for them to do. I'm thinking rebuilding the factory would be good. We're going to take care of them come hell or high water - ain't a joke. It's low-hanging fruit, I guess, but that's the truth - hell or high water.

BENSHOFF: He says it reminds him of a song he wrote many years ago that feels oh so timely.

NASALROAD: (Singing) A bad break when you're broke is just another dirty joke. It ain't funny, but blame sure ain't right.

BENSHOFF: Laura Benshoff, NPR News, Hazard, Ky.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.