Monday, August 08, 2022

Appalachians ask: How do we prepare for floods bound to come as climate change appears to be making them worse?

Flooding aftermath in Neon Junction, Kentucky. (Mountain Eagle photo by Ben Gish)
"Devastating floods that killed at least 37 people in Kentucky and recent damage in other parts of Appalachia, including Virginia and West Virginia, are fueling urgent questions about how to mitigate the impact of hazardous flooding that is only expected to increase as climate change fuels more extreme weather," report Chris Kenning of USA Today, Connor Giffin of the Louisville Courier Journal and James Bruggers of Inside Climate News.

The damage is nearly indescribable. Ben Gish, publisher of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., told The Rural Blog after a trip to Neon and McRoberts: "I keep looking for a way to put it into words, but can’t think of any that would do it justice, except annihilated. People are still living in the ruins of their homes, and some who don’t have a home are somehow sleeping in the remains of their flooded cars. Double-wide mobile homes, which is often the symbol of success for many since the banks rarely finance new housing, have crashed into each other and worse. . . . At this point, I think it would be much easier to count the people whose homes were not flooded than those homes that were." The Eagle is being distributed free again this week, in print and on its website.

Solutions for the flooding are elusive for many reasons, including "the region’s mountainous landscape, high poverty rates, dispersed housing in remote valleys, coal-mining scarred mountains that accelerate floods and under-resourced local governments," Kenning, Giffin and Bruggers report. "Measures such as floodwalls, drainage systems or raising homes are expensive for cash-strapped counties. Buyouts or building restrictions are difficult in areas where safer options and new home construction are limited. Many are unable or unwilling to uproot. And tamping down extreme weather by reducing climate-changing emissions nationwide is a goal that is politically fraught, including in a region with coal in its veins, that promises no quick relief."

Former mining regulators say decades of surface mining have left Central Appalachia uncommonly vulnerable to such flooding and made the floods deadlier, Bruggers reports for ICN. Coal companies are supposed to reclaim the land when they shutter, making it more resistant to flooding, but some states and judges have not forced them to do so. Billions of dollars will be required to full reclaim abandoned mines, and though the infrastructure bill had $11.3 billion for the task, President Biden, who is in Eastern Kentucky today, has not nominated a director for the Office of Surface Mining. Bruggers reported in April that very few Kentucky coal mines are current on reclamation.

Meanwhile, Appalachians have one advantage in the fight: each other. Neil Middleton, vice president and general manager of WYMT-TV in Hazard, said in a recent commentary: "That's what we mountain folk do. We survive, we rebuild, we take care of our own, whatever it takes, in any way possible." Jessica Tezak of The Washington Post has a feature story on one of the helpers, Pastor Brad Tezak of Clay County. If you want to contribute to flood relief, The Daily Yonder has a list.

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