On July 26, devastating rains hit eastern Kentucky, a rural Appalachian region with a high percentage of people living in poverty. The floods killed at least 39 people across more than a dozen counties, and thousands lost homes. Today, more than six weeks after the floods, local activists are still trying to help residents rebuild from the widespread damage.
“Every disaster, I’m always right in the middle of it somehow,” said Heather Owens, owner of The Mountain Muse in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, a town hit hard by the rains. She has assisted people with recovery over the years on an ad hoc basis through her small business. On July 28, Owens converted the upstairs of her shop to a community outreach center where she could store supplies. “I would hope that someone would help me if I was ever in that situation.”
From The Mountain Muse, Owens organizes clothing, temporary shelter, and more for community members who have suffered losses.
“Right now, with the flood issues, everybody is at all different stages [of recovery],” she said.
More than 1,600 houses were washed away or severely damaged during the floods. The Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky received nearly 6,000 reports of total or partial damage, including from mud and mold. Experts say the environmental effects of coal mining and unchecked construction exacerbated the floods. This vulnerable ecosystem met rainfall totals that were over 600% of normal, leading to disaster.
People are visiting the distribution center at Hemphill Community Center in Fleming-Neon, a former coal town with a relatively high Black population for the county. According to volunteer Gwen Johnson, the community hall initially distributed basic necessities like water and food and is now giving out wheelbarrows and materials to clear out the mold.
Rebuilding takes time. Though electricity has largely been restored to homes that weren’t washed away, what people need depends on the level of destruction they faced. Many require refrigerators, washing machines, and other large appliances, while others need assistance navigating the bureaucracy around Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) applications.
“[The range of needs] makes it a little chaotic as someone who’s trying to help,” Owens said. “You never know what you’ll get requests for.”
Although specific requests vary, the flood has impacted people across income brackets.
“Here there’s a mansion, trailer, mansion, shack,” Owens said. “They’re all affected.”
What flood victims actually need
Owens says that what people impacted by the Kentucky floods need the most right now is monetary donations. Immediately afterward, outreach groups, including The Mountain Muse, received donations of small-scale cleaning materials, which Owens said wasn’t very helpful.
“We can’t put it on things if we ain’t got anything,” she said. “We’ve hand sanitizer-ed people to death. That’s not what they need.”
Local groups like the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky and Appalachian Regional Healthcare have set up funds to channel resources to those affected. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear has also created an Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief Fund that is accepting tax-deductible donations. There are also scores of GoFundMe pages to help individuals looking to rebuild.
Appalachians for Appalachia, a grassroots advocacy group, has created a living Google Doc with resources by county. It includes the contact information of churches, stores, community centers, gyms, libraries, schools, and more that are helping people, whether it is to provide shelter or access to showers.
When it comes to international organizations, the Red Cross reports having about 400 volunteers working on relief in the region and is organizing shelters and food for inhabitants. Save the Children is also channeling donations to eastern Kentucky.
Although President Joe Biden declared a federal emergency days after the flood hit, freeing up FEMA funding, hundreds of claims have been denied. Beshear urged residents to go directly to local FEMA representatives for assistance.
“If you’re denied, go and look these people in the eye,” Beshear said in August.
Applying for FEMA is a complicated process. Residents must wait for a denial notice from homeowners insurance and then turn the denial in to FEMA, or prove their settled insurance claim did not cover essential needs, to receive aid. Homeowners insurance usually does not sell flood insurance in this area, as eastern Kentucky has not officially been categorized as flood prone. Once people finally receive funding, the amount is often insufficient. So far, awards have averaged between $179 and $195 for contractors to provide an estimate of repairs.
“There is appeal after appeal that has to be made,” Johnson said. “The whole FEMA thing is so fraught with problems for our local people because a lot of people are not tech savvy.”
Johnson said there has been poor communication between the federal government and Kentucky residents, leaving many living with flood destruction for prolonged periods. While several people have been told not to move anything in their homes because FEMA inspectors are going to come, others have been told they can clear the debris if they photograph the damage.
According to Johnson, some locals have been having lunch with FEMA inspectors to gain clarity about the aid process.
“We get some tidbits of information from them by breaking bread with them,” she said.
Those who moved away from eastern Kentucky before the floods have since sent supplies and any other resources they could gather.
“We’re on the wrong side of the tracks,” she said. “People who’ve moved away understand that and have been more helpful.”
Johnson said the sense of responsibility Appalachians feel toward their neighbors is palpable.
“We have not had government help. We have had a lot of help with people,” she said.