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They had never thought the water could have gotten that high

Flooding has brought its costs for the eastern Kentucky town of Breckinridge. What does it mean for communities to rebuild when “1,000-year floods” aren’t actually 1,000-year floods?



When Willa Johnson saw a pair of her shoes floating past the stairs, she realized it was time to leave. She had watched for hours as intense storms and heavy rains tore through Whitesburg, Kentucky. She was an Appalachian native who had experienced floods in the past, but she had never witnessed the road outside her house completely submerged by rising water. It was now inside her home. At her parents’ house up the hill, where mudslides were a possibility but at least the water couldn’t get there, Johnson weathered the storm. When cellular service was restored the following afternoon, she fully realized the extent of the damage the storms had caused. The North Fork of the Kentucky River, which cuts through the little mountain hamlet of Whitesburg, was under water during what the National Weather Service would later describe as a “1,000-year flood.” Multiple fatalities had occurred, according to news alerts, and the number of fatalities was certain to climb. Johnson’s house was gone, as were numerous other residences in Whitesburg and the surrounding communities of Fleming-Neon, Isom, and McRoberts. Unbeknownst to Johnson, some of her friends and family members had started to speculate that she might be one of the missing. Johnson didn’t start crying until she learned that Appalshop, a beloved media and community center in the middle of Whitesburg, had also flooded. Johnson, who oversees the center’s famed film department, told HuffPost, “I’ve grieved more about Appalshop than I did losing a lot of my own stuff.” Launched in 1969 during the so-called War on Poverty under President Lyndon B. Johnson, Appalshop has spent the last 50 years reclaiming and reshaping Appalachia as more than the destitute, hopeless region that predominates in the public consciousness. It began as a film workshop but has now evolved into a full-fledged producer, collector, and preserver of Appalachian art and culture that takes pleasure in its capacity to both celebrate and criticize mountain civilization. In addition to housing several community development activities, Appalshop is home to a film school, a radio station, photography courses, a theater, a literary magazine, and a record label. Its productions have screened at events like the Smithsonian Institution, South by Southwest, Museum of Modern Art, and Sundance Film Festival. Appalshop is a celebration of what it means to be here in a place where, in some cases, “it’s easy to feel like you’re not seen,” according to Johnson. It is a celebration of the ability to unite people from many ideas and belief systems while still remaining Appalachian. At its core, it is a celebration of what it means to be a native of this area. She claimed that having it submerged “hurt.” Educating and empowering individuals from the mountains to tell their own stories with the kind of subtlety and nuance that mainstream narratives tend to compress into a single hillbilly stereotype was the founding purpose of Appalshop. Appalshop’s iconic wooden building had another story to tell: about how lives and livelihoods, buildings and homes are not the only things that are at risk from increasingly dangerous storms brought on by the climate crisis. Drowned beneath the swollen Kentucky River, with its collection of historical films and other artifacts at risk of total ruin, Appalshop’s iconic wooden building now had another story to tell. Likewise, so are entire communities and cultures, as well as the hubs like Appalshop that connect them. ‘By The Hands Of Mankind’: A Natural Disaster Mountain communities like Whitesburg are accustomed to flooding. Mimi Pickering, an award-winning videographer who has worked at Appalshop since 1971, stated that whenever it rains for several days, “we start thinking about flooding.” “You go outside and sort of scan the river to find where it is,” But the catastrophe in July was unparalleled and unimaginable. When a big storm system passed through on the evening of July 27, the ground had already been saturated for two days by heavy rain. Between 8.5 and 10 inches of rain fell on the area during the course of the following 48 hours, drowning everything below. On most days, the North Fork of the Kentucky River is more like a brook with depths measured in inches. The river was up more than 20 feet when it finally crested during the floods, at least 6 feet higher than its previous record height. 39 individuals perished in the catastrophe, making it conceivably the deadliest flood in Kentucky’s recorded history. Marley Green, the head of community development at Appalshop, remarked, “What happened here is just utterly off the scale of what anybody anticipated was feasible.” Even if you were present for the most recent record flood in 1957, this is 50% larger.

We reside on the creek banks for what reason? because we are unable to purchase the safer and higher property. It isn’t up for grabs. Who owns it is unknown to us. Willa Johnson, the head of Appalshop’s film program, says that it’s folks in offices up in New York who most likely have forgotten they own it.

These groups are aware, however, that they cannot completely transform the area by themselves. In the face of increasingly terrible climatic calamities, particularly in areas already deprived by the loss of industries that monopolized them in the past, private philanthropy, local investment, and small government subsidies and programs are insufficient. Every degree of action is required, according to Pickering. “The federal government needs to take a ton of action.” In the wake of the July floods, state and federal officials have vowed to support rebuilding efforts. President Joe Biden stated, “We’re going to be here,” during an early August trip to eastern Kentucky. However, the early response from the federal government has been incredibly bureaucratic. Both Democrat Gov. Andy Beshear and Republican lawmakers in Kentucky have criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency for turning down too many requests for financial aid from the federal government. Even when granted, help may not be much. Republican state senator Brandon Smith claimed that FEMA had authorized a pitiful $8,000 award for one family in his district. According to Smith in a news release, according to the Lexington Herald Leader, “that implies the federal government has judged the complete value of this family’s livelihood, essentially everything they have to their name, is only worth $8,000.” Beshear stated at a news conference on Monday that FEMA has just changed its help procedure. But the magnitude of the catastrophe has also prompted profound considerations about the future. Less than 1% of the homes in the storm’s center in July had flood insurance. The floods in one of the poorest areas of the country will cause many people to lose their homes, means of support, and money—all of which were already scarce before the calamity. Without even mentioning the wealth these communities once provided, largely for other people, neither the government nor anybody else appears capable of or interested in replacing these on a scale that equals the recent destruction. According to calculations by The Mountain Eagle, a local newspaper in Whitesburg, the 600 million tons of coal produced in Letcher County alone since 1900 would be worth somewhere between $31 billion and $99 billion at current market values. Tarence Ray, a Whitesburg resident and co-host of the “Trillbilly Worker’s Party” podcast, recently penned an article for The Baffler in which he stated, “I think that this latest iteration of rebuilding will become, like the old one, a kind of comedy.” Who would want to recreate the same culture that allowed this to occur in the first place? An infrastructure package with funds for mountain reclamation projects was approved by Biden last year. The biggest climate bill in American history was passed by Congress in less than two weeks following the floods. However, it will take time for the funds provided by these legislation and the activities they started to reach the highlands and other places. Additionally, they could not be ambitious enough or arrive in time to help prevent the next catastrophe, particularly if 1,000-year floods start to become a common occurrence. In the recent years, Green claimed, “Floods in Whitesburg have become more frequent and larger.” “I think we’ll soon witness another one of these. It’s hard to predict whether it will happen again the following year, whether it will be five or ten years before we experience this, but it won’t be fifty. I am quite certain of that. I No Longer Want To Be On The Creek Bank On her trip to McRoberts, where she grew up, Johnson passed through Fleming-Neon, another former coal town, a few days after the floods. Both of them had been saddened, and Johnson’s 5-year-old son told her he no longer wanted to go to Fleming-Neon on the way home. She recalls him stating, “They need so much help, and I’m just a small kid.” People who have been affected by similar tragedies in other places have become closer in the wake of this tragedy. To help with relief operations, emergency personnel from western Kentucky, which was devastated by a record-breaking tornado outbreak in December, traveled great distances. One afternoon, a West Virginian driver of a flatbed truck filled with water jugs arrived into the parking lot while employees of Appalshop were working another shift to retrieve film from its archive. Pickering claimed that because his town had flooded the previous year, he was aware that clean water would be in short supply. These are the folks I want to fight a struggle against the climate issue with, Johnson told HuffPost. However, reconstructing a shattered sense of community will be at least as challenging as doing so.

Psychiatric evaluations conducted after the Buffalo Creek disaster in 1972 revealed that 93% of the neighborhood’s inhabitants had experienced emotional stress. Even decades later, research revealed that people who had encountered the tragedy as children had abnormally high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. These findings helped to conceptualize PTSD as a chronic illness. A survivor’s “nameless feeling that something had gone grotesquely awry in the order of things, that their minds and spirits had been bruised beyond repair, that they would never again be able to find coherence, that the world as they knew it had come to an end,” according to one study, was described as a common symptom. Residents of southeast Kentucky have been leaving the area in large numbers for years. Letcher County’s population decreased by 12% during the past ten years, making it one of eight Kentucky counties to experience double-digit decreases, per the most available census data. They were all in Appalachia. This most recent calamity will be too much for many people to handle. And they will permanently leave the mountains, whether for monetary, emotional, or other reasons. Appalshop intends to stay. It shouldn’t have any trouble rebuilding thanks to sizable flood insurance, federal grants, and donations, according to Green. But it won’t be immune to the suffering or the adjustments that have been imposed on Whitesburg. Johnson completed the Appalshop film program. To work there, she had come back to Letcher County, her hometown. She frequently brought her son to work before the floods. She is now concerned that the Appalshop building, which has long represented her community and “what it means to be here,” will serve as a symbol of the tragedy that eastern Kentucky endured last month and the enduring anxiety that will engulf the region every time it rains. I have no doubt that it will regrow. However, where do we want that to go back? How do we want that to appear? And to what extent can we subject ourselves to trauma once more? she questioned. “I will never be able to go back to the same building where I studied media and taught media to other young people.” More than anything, I adore that structure. I consider it to be a second home,” Johnson remarked while holding back tears. However, I don’t wish to remain on the creek bank. It terrifies me.