Friday, September 02, 2022

Flood roundup: Eastern Kentuckians still dealing with the devastation of recent flooding as school year begins

Angela Cornett has been living in a tent next to her home, which is uninhabitable after the floods. She can't find a place to live nearby, and said she will probably have to go to another county. (Lexington Herald-Leader photo by Ryan C. Hermens)

More than a month after the flash flooding that devastated parts of Eastern Kentucky, residents are still dealing with the fallout. Here's some of the latest:

A Courier Journal story chronicles the struggle one teenager and his grandmother face as they still work to get the mud out of their home and their church. Though the teen said he worries about another flood, he sees them as just a fact of life. "This is what you do in Kentucky – pick up after floods," he told Matt Stone.

Two stories, one from The Daily Yonder and one from The New York Times, look at how schools in Eastern Kentucky are trying to carry on with damaged or destroyed buildings and buses, washed-out roads, poor or no internet, and many families still homeless.

In another CJ story, Christians in Eastern Kentucky talk about how they're leaning on their faith as they continue cleaning and salvaging what they can from damaged churches and homes. Read it here.

A month after the flooding, many residents are still living in tents, sheds, or even their cars. Some are trying to repair their homes, and others are trying to find another permanent residence. But the housing market in Eastern Kentucky was tight even before the flood; now, many people say they may have to leave their beloved communities and live elsewhere. One county leader told the Lexington Herald-Leader that, without public or private relief funding, the county will lose residents. Read more here.

Rural Covid-19 infection rate keeps climbing above metro rate; now 27% higher; deaths up 10% after 2-week decline

Newly reported coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, Aug. 23-30
Map by The Daily Yonder; click on the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

The number of new coronavirus cases in rural counties rose "for the first time in three weeks last week. Meanwhile, new infections fell in metropolitan counties, increasing the gap between rural and metro infection rates for the third consecutive week," Sarah Melotte reports for The Daily Yonder. "The number of Covid-related deaths increased in both rural and metropolitan counties last week."

Non-metro counties reported more than 105,000 new infections during the week of Aug. 23-30 — a 3.7% increase from the week before. Metro counties reported about 500,000 new cases last week, 5.6% less than the previous week. "The rural infection rate was 27% higher than the metropolitan rate last week, compared to 16% higher two weeks ago and 7% three weeks ago," Melotte reports.

Meanwhile, "After decreasing for three weeks, rural deaths increased by nearly 10%. Rural counties reported 614 Covid-related deaths, increasing the death rate to 1.33 deaths per 100,000 residents," Melotte reports. "Metropolitan counties also saw an increase in death rates. The death rate in urban America increased 7.8% to .98 deaths per 100,000 residents. The weekly rural death rate is 36.6% higher than the metropolitan death rate." Click here for more charts and county-level interactive maps from the Yonder.

Old coal mines' acid drainage could be used in batteries

New Yorker illustration by Leif Gann-Matzen
For decades, acid mine drainage from old coal mines, called "red dog" by locals, has polluted Appalachian creeks and rivers and killed or damaged their aquatic life. But recent research has found that this drainage "contains critical minerals and materials, including cobalt, manganese, and lithium, and rare-earth elements, such as neodymium," Eliza Griswold reports for The New Yorker. "These are essential to a wide range of high-tech products, including the magnets used in wind turbines and the ultra-lightweight batteries used in computers, smartphones, and a variety of modern weaponry."

These materials are mined in problematic places such as Congo, which is known to use forced child labor, and in China, which tightly controls production and exports. "This model is bad for the American economy, and it creates challenges for supply chains, as well as for national security, since it requires the U.S. to outsource the development and manufacturing of certain sensitive technologies to Chinese factories," Griswold reports. "In the past several years, however, American scientists have succeeded in extracting critical minerals and materials from coal waste. If this effort proves efficient and effective, we may be able to simultaneously clean up polluted places and secure access to rare resources. These resources could then be used to bring sensitive manufacturing back to the U.S., provide supplies used for military technologies, and help create more sustainable energy sources."

USDA household food security webinar set for Wed., Sept. 7

The Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service will host a free webinar on Wednesday, Sept. 7, to discuss its annual report on the prevalence and severity of household food security in the U.S. in 2021. The webinar will begin at 1 p.m. ET and will last about an hour.

From the website: "The report includes changes in food insecurity from previous years, the prevalence of food insecurity by selected household characteristics, and food insecurity among children. Food-insecure households are defined as having had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources. Food-secure households are defined as having had access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members."

Here's the report from 2020, and here's where the new report will appear when it's published.

Quick hits: An ode to 'leather britches'; webinar on covering methane Sept. 7; communities repurpose shuttered prisons

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at

A beloved community theater company in a Colorado mountain town has found a way to survive the pandemic and thrive. Read more here.

Twenty-one states have partly or fully closed prisons and other correctional facilities since 2000; local leaders have found creative ways to repurpose the buildings as apartments, office space, whiskey distilleries, and even movie studios. The moves have served to strengthen the communities and their economies. Read more here.

The presence of Asian longhorned ticks has been confirmed in 17 states across the U.S. That's of particular concern to cattle producers since the ticks carry a highly transmissible disease called Ikeda that is sometimes fatal to cattle. Read more here.

The Rural Health Information Hub has a newly updated resource guide on rural home health services. Read more here.

The Society of Environmental Journalists will host a free Sept. 7 webinar to discuss the latest science, data, and policy initiatives around methane, tips on covering methane, and ways to track methane in your local region or around the world. Read more here.

The Daily Yonder offers up a contemplation of the love-em-or-hate-em Appalachian dish called shuck beans or leather britches. Read more here.

Three weeks after the Federal Communications Commission spiked rural broadband funding for Starlink and LTD Broadband, the agency has authorized an extra $800 million from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund for six providers to build out broadband in over 350,000 locations in 19 states. Read more here.

Thursday, September 01, 2022

Evangelical group's report says Christians should battle climate change out of care for other people and the planet

"The National Association of Evangelicals has unveiled a sweeping report on global climate change, laying out what its authors call the 'biblical basis' for environmental activism to help spur fellow evangelicals to address the planetary crisis," Jack Jenkins reports for The Washington Post. "But the authors admit that convincing evangelicals is no small task, considering the religious group has historically been one of the demographics most resistant to action on the issue."

The report, titled "Loving the Least of These: Addressing a Changing Environment," has four main sections, each with supporting Scripture, perspectives from faith leaders, and real-world examples of faith communities that care for others through environmentally responsible actions.

The first section asserts that taking care of the environment is a biblical mandate, since Christians are called to be good stewards of the Earth and love their neighbors—especially the less fortunate. The second section notes the top signs that we live in a warming world, outlines the basic science of climate change, and discusses the anti-bias safeguards of the scientific process. The third section shows how climate change disproportionately affects people in poverty, and the fourth section advises Christians on how to take action as individuals and as faith communities. The report steers clear of current politics, advising readers to "become part of the bigger solution . . . by advocating for government and corporate action."

The report may have little impact; NAE first published a report on the issue in 2011. But it is part of a growing movement among evangelicals to tease environmentalism apart from its common association with liberal politics. Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist, evangelical Christian and The Nature Conservancy's chief scientist, has been honing that message with audiences for years. In fact, the report, which cites Hayhoe several times, emulates her methods (and her recent book) by trying to frame the climate crisis in ways more likely to resonate with deeply skeptical evangelicals.

Hayhoe recently advised a Wyoming audience that "We need to talk about things that are relevant to us: my family, my home, my job. . . . We need to talk about it in a way that directly connects the dots between things that we already care about, like having water, like agriculture and food." In a later interview with Mike Koshmrl of WyoFile, she elaborated: "We should really be focusing on what people have in common and what they agree on, and then building out a policy for that. And if it addresses climate resilience and climate mitigation at the same time, that’s an extra win."

The chief author of the report, Dorothy Boorse, a biology professor at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., said she believes evangelicals have a "very deep desire to care for others," but it can be difficult to change entrenched opinions. But, she told Jenkins, discussing it in terms of issues evangelicals already care about, such as care for children, can "spark an imagination" that climate change is "not different from other problems in the world that we feel committed to care about, such as education, food availability or disaster relief."

Rural editors and publishers among E & P's '25 over 50'; here's what they think about the future of the news media

Cathie Shaffer along Kentucky's
Country Music Highway (E&P)
Several rural editors and publishers are in Editor and Publisher's 2022 class of "25 over 50" late-career news-media professionals "nominated for their strong work ethic, transformational mindsets, commitment to journalistic and publishing excellence, and their ability to lead during challenging times." Here are the ruralites, with their responses to E&P's question, "What are your predictions for where news publishing/news media is heading?"

Cathie Shaffer, owner of The Greenup Gazette, which she started two years ago at age 71 when Community Newspaper Holdings shut down its paper in Greenup, Ky., near Ashland: "While the model of the past isn’t working as it once did, newspapers will continue. Smaller papers will continue to fill the local news void for many communities, but larger, regional papers will need to revamp how they do business and accept lower profits to succeed. I anticipate that many communities will find ways to help support locally owned newspapers in innovative ways."

Kelly J. Boldan, editor, West Central Tribune, Willmar, Minn.: "Journalism will continue delivering news and content digitally and in the coming decade, likely via technology unknown to us now. The content form will be audio, news stories, photos, podcast, videos and more. Change is constant, and changes in journalism will continue. You must learn to embrace change or be left behind. . . . The future is to report compelling content digitally now and promote it via social media."

Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, a online news site serving a community of 16,000 between Buffalo and Rochester. It's in its 14th year, which is "about 13.5 years longer than all my detractors said it would last," he told E&P. "Facebook is death by a thousand cuts. It’s slowly chipping away at the local audience and local advertising, and there is no effective answer that I can see. I sense that a large portion of the news industry is oblivious to the threat. There's a lot of chatter about the threat of Google. Google isn’t a threat. It’s a complement to what we do online. Facebook is a serious existential threat, which makes it a threat to democracy. If not for Facebook, I’d think the sky is the limit on digital growth for local news."

Chip Rowe, editor of The Highlands Current, a 10-year-old nonprofit in Cold Spring/Beacon, N.Y.: "It’s hard to believe newsprint will survive another generation, but that’s just a change of medium. The bigger issue is trust. When pollsters ask people how much they trust 'newspapers' or 'the media,' we manage to beat Congress. The question is unfair, of course — what is 'the media?' — but you hope that outlets that adopt some kind of transparency and report from the gray zone will survive and thrive. An important part of that is a populace that will accept the gray over the black and white, which I don’t think is the trend."

Tim Timmons, CEO of Sagamore News Media, Crawfordsville and Noblesville, Ind.: "There’s no doubt of the danger, yet there is opportunity as well. I think the biggest danger lies in trying to continue operating as traditional newspapers. . . . As an industry, we would give a lot if readers would spend as much time with our product as they do scrolling through Facebook. Yet, in so many cases, we continue to produce the same kind of front pages and news that we did five, 10 or 30 years ago. . . . We have an opportunity to reinvent ourselves into media companies that connect to our communities in ways we’ve never done before. And if we do, our future looks pretty good."

Ron Vodenichar, president and publisher, the Butler Eagle, Butler, Pa.: "I have managed to keep a small family-owned newspaper successful and viable through the many challenges over the past 34 years. . . . My hope for the future is that local news remains a strong factor in communities and that we never let go of the concept that no one, not an editor, not a reporter, not an ad director or a publisher knows what the reader wants. We must always strive to give them that."

News-media roundup: Standout Iowa weekly sold to small chain; Gannett says it laid off 400 and cut 400 open slots ...

Louie Mullen
One of America's standout weekly newspapers, The North Scott Press of Eldridge, Iowa, near Davenport, is being sold. Bill and Linda Tubbs announced this week that they have sold it and its two sister papers, the Wilton-Durant Advocate News and the West Liberty Index, to J. Louis "Louie" Mullen of Buffalo, Wyo., who owns more than 30 weeklies in Wyoming, Washington, Oregon, the Dakotas, Michigan and in southwest Iowa: the Harlan Tribune, the Red Oak Express and the Glenwood Opinion-Tribune.

Linda and Bill Tubbs
Bill Tubbs, who has been at the Press for 51 years, says he will continue to write for it. He said in his latest column, "We strived to find a succession plan that would be true to our values amidst a changing newspaper publishing environment: strong, independent newspapers staffed by individuals who advocate for the publishers, put the reader first, and want their communities to succeed. When looking for a buyer, this was more important to us than price." Mullen said, "The Tubbses have made it their life’s work to assure your community has a trusted voice in the newspaper, and I intend to honor that tradition."

One early testimony to the paper's impact was a comment by judges who gave it the Iowa State Education Association's 1977 education-coverage award: "North Scott is the only place in Iowa
where a community was formed by a newspaper." Tubbs explained to The Rural Blog: "Our 210-square-mile school district encompasses nine towns. Before the district was formed in 1958, kids went to high schools in six different neighboring cities. There was no local newspaper until 1968. Our focus from the start was creating unity, giving each town equal importance and telling stories in a way that created a whole which was rallied around the school district, now recognized among the best in the state."

UPDATE, Sept. 2: Mullen has also purchased the Gladwin County Record & Beaverton Clarion in Gladwin, Mich., from Adams Publishing Group.

In other news-media news:

After weeks of silence, Gannett Co. revealed that it laid off 400 employees and cut 400 open positions; the total was 3 percent of its workforce, The Poynter Institute reports.

Republicans have long feuded with mainstream news media; now some are shutting them out of events or putting conditions on admission, NPR reports.

A study shows people can be “inoculated” against misinformation, by giving them early warnings about the lies they’re likely to encounter: 

The Journalist’s Resource at Harvard University has tips for covering student-loan forgiveness. 

A study found that many journalists’ mental health is suffering from stresses of the past few years.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Alaska apparently elects its first Alaska Native to Congress; Sarah Palin loses in the state's first ranked-choice election

Mary Peltola (ADN photo)
More than 60 years after it became a state, Alaska will be represented in Congress by an Alaska Native, if an election review board endorses results tabulated Wednesday in the state's first ranked-choice election. About 15 percent of the state's population identifies as indigenous.

In a special election to fill the vacancy created by the death of Republican Don Young, Democrat Mary Peltola edged out Republican Sarah Palin "after ballots were tallied and votes for third-place GOP candidate Nick Begich III were redistributed to his supporters’ second choices," reports Iris Samuels of the Anchorage Daily News.

Peltola, a Yup’ik from Bethel, would also be the first woman to hold Alaska’s only House seat. Palin, a former governor who was her party's 2008 vice presidential nominee and was endorsed by Donald Trump, may have been done in by the ranked-choice system, which tends to favor more moderate candidates. She and Begich got nearly 60 percent of first-place votes, but only half of Begich's voters made her their second choice, and 29% chose Peltola, giving her 51.5% of the final vote. Palin told supporters, “The task in front of me is to explain to Alaskans why ranked-choice voting is not in the public’s best interest.”

Peltola had placed fourth in the June 11 primary, barely qualifying for the Aug. 16 mail election. Independent Al Gross, who placed third, withdrew and endorsed her. It took two weeks to count the ballots and assign the ranked choices. "Another election in November will determine who holds the seat for the full two-year term that begins in January," Samuels notes. "Peltola, Palin and Begich said after results were announced Wednesday that they intend to remain in the November race." Palin called on Begich to drop out.

UPDATES: Alex Wagner of MSNBC said ranked choice rewards "crossover appeal," which Peltola had, partly from her time in the state legislature. "People are craving people who want to build coalitions," Peltola told Wagner. Conservative columnist Henry Olsen of The Washington Post writes that Palin was the victim of her own campaign, not ranked-choice voting, which he says could help Republicans if they use it like it has been used in Australia. "Suppose she had won a Republican primary and faced Peltola in a traditional one-on-one contest," Olsen posits. "Her high negatives could easily have spawned the same result. . . . In some sense, ranked-choice voting 'worked' because the candidate who was disliked by a majority of voters lost; the new system just made it easier for voters to register their disapproval of her." 

Daniela Altimari of Route Fifty reports, "According to the nonpartisan group RepresentUs, two states, one county and 52 cities, including San Francisco and New York, are expected to use ranked choice voting for at least some of their upcoming elections. Voters in Maine cast ranked-choice ballots in the 2020 presidential election and similar systems are in place in several communities in Minnesota. Alaska voters narrowly approved ranked-choice voting in 2020." CBC News notes, "The state has more registered unaffiliated voters than registered Republicans or Democrats combined."

How to fill gaps in local news? Let's look at quality, not just quantity, to provide guidance for the capital infusion needed

By Al Cross
Director and Professor, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

In the last installment of the State of Local News 2022 report from Northwestern University, researcher Penny Abernathy tackles a big, broad subject: "How to fill the gaps in local news." Her 2,900-word essay has several points directly related to rural journalism, beginning with the lede:

Penelope Muse Abernathy
"News deserts are not a new phenomenon. Throughout the country’s history, there have been places so small or isolated that the community could not support a local newspaper or any other media outlet. Whether rural or urban, most were poor communities, often with large minority and ethnic populations. Residents in those communities were compelled to develop communication work-arounds to get the news and information that would affect them personally. But the 21st century is different. The internet and mobile phones today are so ubiquitous—85 percent of adults owned a smartphone in 2021—that even residents in traditionally underserved and isolated communities have easy access to a wealth of information, as well as misinformation and disinformation on politically charged topics that tear at the fabric of communities and country."

The flood of entertainment-driven national and political news, and the dominance of social media, have reduced demand for local news (which can be, well, boring); so have what Abernathy calls "the collapse of the print newspaper business model, and the failure of many news organizations to develop alternative revenue sources." Those changes have created more news deserts and reduced the staffing and content of many newspapers, creating "ghost newspapers" that are unable to get more revenue from readers who are unwilling to pay good money for bad journalism.

To all these problems, "There is no single solution," Abernathy writes. She calls for:
  • Identifying areas within each state that are without local news, or in danger of losing it.
  • Designing policies and incentives at the state and national levels to address the disparity and availability of news in these communities.
  • Increasing and redirecting venture capital and philanthropy to organizations that seek to deliver reliable and comprehensive local news and information in news deserts.
  • Rethinking journalistic practices to compensate for the dramatic loss of almost 60 percent of newspaper journalists in recent years.
Abernathy keeps a census of newspapers and digital-only local news outlets by county, and the number of journalists they employ. "Research by scholars at other universities has analyzed the quantity and quality of local news in specific communities," she writes, but that knowledge needs to be broadened. She cites the Illinois Local Journalism Task Force, which the state legislature created this year to assess local news in Illinois and make policy recommendations to strengthen it.

This effort needs to work from the bottom up, not just the top down. Research about the quality of local news needs to serve citizens in those communities — and the news outlets, if they are willing to listen. Here's an idea: Let's develop a checklist to evaluate the quality of a local newspaper. It could include such data as the number of enterprise stories, the percentage of public-agency meetings covered, the way those meetings are covered (we see too many meeting stories that are chronologically based), the number of advance and follow-up stories about issues at the meetings, the prevalence of editorial pages and local editorials or columns from the editor or publisher, and the publication of public records, such as the sale prices of real estate.

The knowledge and analysis from such evaluations could also provide a sound basis for the infusion of capital that is needed to sustain local, independent journalism in rural communities. Citing Robert Picard, senior fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and author of The Economics and Financing of Media Companies, Abernathy writes that that most communities that have lost newspapers in the last 20 years "are not large enough to support either a for-profit newspaper or nonprofit digital start-up, and "The vast majority of the venture and philanthropic money has gone to outlets located in major urban areas."

On her fourth bullet point, Abernathy quotes Picard: “But even if we find the resources to add back all the journalists we’ve lost recently, we won’t have enough journalists to cover the government meetings and events in the thousands of small, incorporated communities in this country. How do we create a journalism model that supports communities that are not large enough to financially support a local news operation?” He suggests reviving and elevating the idea of community correspondents, once a staple of rural newspapers. They chronicled the granular goings and comings in a neighborhood, but Picard suggests, “We need to bring back those community correspondents and train them to be the eyes and ears of the professional journalists who can’t be there. The only way we are going to know what is going on in these communities – what is important to people living there – is to have someone in the community.”

Finally, Abernathy quotes this writer on the valuable connections that make community news outlets valuable: “The best local news organizations introduce us to people we don’t know, who share our concerns and aspirations,” and connect “people in a community to one another and to the outside world.” Abernathy concludes, "Reviving local news is not about reviving print newspapers. Rather it is about reviving the historic function of strong local journalism. At its best, as Cross suggests, local journalism in the 21st century will help us come together to solve our problems and achieve our dreams." For the full essay, click here.

FDA authorizes coronavirus booster shots that target Omicron subvariants; here's what you need to know

Today the Food and Drug Administration "authorized the first redesign of coronavirus vaccines since they were rolled out in late 2020, setting up millions of Americans to receive new booster doses targeting Omicron subvariants as soon as next week," report Noah Weiland and Sharon LaFraniere of The New York Times. "The agency cleared two options aimed at the BA.5 variant of Omicron that is now dominant: one made by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech for use in people as young as 12, and the other by Moderna, for those 18 and older." The boosters also target the BA.4 subvariant.

People are eligible for the new booster only if they are fully vaccinated, and if it's been at least two months since they got their latest booster or finished the initial two-shot series. Older formulations of the booster will no longer be authorized for people aged 12 and over, the Times reports. The new boosters are now being shipped out and could be available locally as soon as this week.

Fewer and fewer people take advantage of boosters each time a new one is offered, perhaps out of weariness over the pandemic or because they feel sufficiently protected by the initial vaccination. However, FDA officials say the booster could help curb infections and deaths during the winter months, when numbers tend to be higher, the Times reports.

"An average of about 90,000 infections and 475 deaths are recorded every day around the United States, almost three years into a pandemic that has killed more than a million Americans and driven a historic drop in life expectancy," the Times reports. "But there are also hopeful signs. Even with high case counts, fewer than 40,000 people are currently hospitalized with the virus, a decrease of 10 percent since early August and far fewer than during the Delta-driven surge last summer or the Omicron-fueled wave last winter. Deaths have also remained somewhat flat in recent weeks, a sign that vaccines are helping to prevent the worst outcomes of Covid-19."

Gray TV sets new $18 minimum wage for non-contract staff

Gray Television announced this week a new company-wide minimum wage of $18 an hour for "essentially all full-time, non-commissioned and non-contracted employees of Gray and its wholly owned subsidiaries," according to a press release. That works out to an annual salary of $37,440.

About 2,000 of the company's more than 8,000 employees will get a raise as a result of the new policy, which takes effect Oct. 1, according to the release. Since most reporters and anchors are contracted employees, and advertising reps usually get a commission on ad sales, the policy may apply mostly to support staff.

Gray says its 180 stations serve 113 markets that reach about 36 percent of U.S. households.

Quintennial Census of Agriculture will have new questions on hemp, precision agriculture, internet access, and more

Some changes are coming to the Census of Agriculture, a survey of U.S. farmers and ranchers conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture every five years, according to a USDA press release. 

For one thing, USDA has a new web portal meant to make participation easier, especially for those with spotty internet or limited time who can't complete the entire survey in one sitting. The agency's National Agricultural Statistics Service, which conducts the census, invited about 15,000 farmers to do a trial run of the portal in January to iron out any bugs.

Also, the 2022 questionnaire will include new questions about the use of precision agriculture, hemp production, hair sheep, and updates to internet access.

In November, NASS will mail participating farmers a letter inviting them to fill out the census online, and mail out the paper questionnaire in December. Sign-ups for the census closed June 30, but sign-ups were only necessary for those who didn't participate in the 2017 census and aren't on the lists to get mail or emails for any other USDA surveys or censuses. 

Farms of all sizes that produced and sold $1,000 or more of agricultural products in 2022 (or normally would have done so) are eligible to participate. The survey has been conducted for more than 180 years, and remains the only source of comprehensive and impartial agricultural data for every state and county.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

AP announces politics, elections and democracy team; one reporter will cover rules and tactics that make voting harder

The Associated Press says it has been expanding its coverage of politics, elections and democracy with a reporting team that will "produce a deeper, more cohesive report the unifies AP’s journalism produced in Washington with reporting from bureaus across the country."

Nick Riccardi (AP)
Reporter Nick Riccardi, based in Denver, "will cover emerging threats to democracy, including new rules and tactics that make it harder to vote," AP says. Christina A. Cassidy, based in Atlanta, will cover how elections are administered in the states and localities. Gary Fields, based in Washington, will cover challenges to democracy with a focus on the marginalized and disaffected.

Other members of the team as announced by AP are:
· Steve Peoples, based in New York, will continue as chief political writer with a focus on the biggest trends, voter behavior and major statewide races.
· Bill Barrow, based in Atlanta, will cover politics in Georgia, a state that is on the frontlines of some of the biggest political stories.
· Tom Beaumont, based in Des Moines, will continue to cover politics in Iowa and the Midwest, with a focus on U.S. House campaigns.
· Sara Burnett, in Chicago, will cover governors’ races and the intersection of gender and politics. 
· Jill Colvin, in New York, will cover former President Donald Trump and the Republican Party.
· J.J. Cooper, in Phoenix, will cover the rapidly changing politics of Arizona and the Southwest. 
· Adriana Gomez Licon, based in Miami, will cover the political influence of Latino voters. 
· Meg Kinnard, based in Columbia, South Carolina, will cover breaking news, the South and the 2024 Republican presidential primary.
· Michelle Price, in New York, will focus on the political players in the nation’s largest city.
· Brian Slodysko, based in Washington, will cover influence, money and politics.
· Will Weissert, also in Washington, will cover Democratic politics, including efforts to maintain control of Congress and the emerging 2024 campaigns.

"With their reporting expertise and strategic locations across the U.S., this team is in a strong position to cover upcoming elections with speed and sophistication," AP Washington Bureau Chief Anna Johnson said. "And this is only the beginning. We also posted a two-year reporting position for a journalist who will cover voting access and race in the U.S., and we will spend the coming months continuing to build out the team and our coverage." 

Working under Johnson to lead the team are Deputy Bureau Chief Steven Sloan, Democracy News Editor Tom Verdin and Deputy Political Editor Ashley Thomas.

Meanwhile, "Frontline" on PBS will begin its new season next Tuesday night, Sept. 6, with "Lies, Politics and Democracy," a documentary that it says is "told in part through the perspectives of key Republican players and party leaders" and will offer "startling new details from GOP insiders on how the embrace of Trump’s rhetoric helped bring the nation to this precarious moment."

The remote work revolution is already reshaping America, but mainly in cities; remote and rural are not synonymous

Percentage of days worked from home, estimated by applying industry and remote-work trends from November 2021 through June 2022 to 2015-19 industry and occupation data, excluding agriculture. (Washington Post map)

A tsunami of city-dwellers decamped from America's largest cities in the early pandemic, enabled by lockdown work-from-home policies. It will be years before we can get a comprehensive picture of pandemic migration trends, but one thing seems clear: the remote- and hybrid-work trend is here to stay, and it's already reshaping American economic and demographic trends, Andrew Van Dam reports for The Washington Post.

Nearly two-thirds of work was done remotely during the pandemic lockdown in 2020; though many companies have reeled workers back to the office, remote work has stabilized at an "extraordinarily high level" since then, with about one-third of work being done remotely in the U.S. in 2021 and 2022. A Gallup poll "found 29 percent of remote-capable workers working from home full time in June — down from 39 percent in February — while the share working hybrid schedules rose a comparable amount," Van Dam reports.

The data suggest that remote- or hybrid-workers who move to rural areas tend to go for counties with a recreation-based economy. Such counties boast features attractive to urban workers such as natural beauty and good broadband.

Net domestic migration per 1,000 residents from July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021
Business Insider map using Census Bureau data; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

However, Van Dam cautions, many remote workers did not move away from cities, and not all who moved went to rural areas. Some went to nearby suburbs or exurban enclaves. But Census Bureau data released in April found that in the year ending June 30, 2021, non-metropolitan counties did have the greatest annual population gain they had seen in over a decade.

Data scientists are starting to get a clearer picture of what type of worker left cities for greener pastures, though it's not clear whether those in particular industries were more likely to move to rural areas (as opposed to suburbs or exurbs). "The highest rates of remote work appear among technology, communications, professional services, and finance and insurance workers, according to data from more than 200,000 businesses using the payroll and benefits provider Gusto," Van Dam reports. Emerging data—and ancedotes—also indicate that many small- and mid-sized companies are sticking with remote and hybrid work because the greater flexibility is beneficial.

FDA isn't using its power to stop the sale of hundreds of vaping products that it's ordered off the shelves, Stat reports

Food and Drug Administration photo
Even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has ordered hundreds of flavored, nicotine-heavy vaping products off of the market, "Vape companies are regularly flouting the FDA’s orders. They’re making, stocking, and selling the illicit goods. And the agency is just letting it happen," Nicholas Florko and Elissa Welle report for Stat, the medicine-and-science publication of The Boston Globe 

The authors write that while the FDA has ordered more than 100 vape manufacturers to stop making more than 250 specific flavors and vapes, "We found scores of companies across the country that are defying the FDA's demands." And despite having "sweeping legal authorities" to crack down on vape companies that ignore its bans, "ranging from levying seven-figure fines to physically pulling products off shelves," the Stat investigation found that the FDA has never used those powers, according to its own data. And in several cases, "It’s even dropped cases against companies that it knows are still selling illegal products." 

The FDA declined Stat’s request for an interview with Commissioner Robert Califf or the head of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, Brian King, but a spokesperson implied that the agency may soon get tougher against companies that ignore its orders, Stat reports.

Vape shops argue that the FDA’s orders aren’t clear enough, and that until they are more so, they'll keep selling the products. The shops “are doing their best, despite a complete lack of clarity or transparency from the agency, to piece together what products are still legally able to be sold,” Amanda Wheeler, president of American Vapor Manufacturers, told Stat.

The writers say their investigation is likely an underestimation of the issue, since they only analyzed warning letters sent to companies that formally asked the agency for permission to sell their products, and then had that request denied and did not focus on the hundreds more companies that received warning letters for never asking the FDA for permission at all.

Rural Development gets $121 million for climate work; see what's going on in your state and how to apply for funds

The recently signed climate-and-tax bill has $121 million for the Agriculture Department to fight climate change; its Rural Development arm will use that to fund 289 projects in socially vulnerable rural communities in almost every state through grants and loans, according to a recent press release. 

The funds will be distributed through three programs designed to help rural people and businesses: Community Facilities Disaster Grants, Rural Energy for America Program — Renewable Energy Systems & Energy Efficiency Improvement Guaranteed Loans & Grants, and Rural Energy for America Program Energy Audits and Renewable Energy Development Grants. Click on each to see eligibility requirements and information on how to apply for funding.

The money will fund projects of all sizes. Arthur, for example, a community of 206 in Iowa, will get a $2,100 grant to install an early-warning storm siren. The University of Alabama will get $100,000 to help farmers, ranchers, and rural businesses improve operations with renewable energy. In Kentucky, Appharvest will get a $25 million loan to buy energy-efficient equipment for one of its hydroponic greenhouses.

USDA Rural Development has a spreadsheet listing every project that received grants, including the amount of the grant, the recipient, and what the money will be used for. See the list here.

USDA officials will discuss their latest farm income and financial forecasts in a webinar at 1 p.m. ET Thursday

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will host a free webinar at 1 p.m. ET on Thursday, Sept. 1, to release its Farm Income and Financial Forecasts. The event will run about an hour.

The USDA's Economic Research Service releases the report three times a year, typically in February, August and November. From the webinar website: "These core statistical indicators provide guidance to policymakers, lenders, commodity organizations, farmers, and others interested in the financial status of the farm economy. ERS's farm-income statistics also inform the computation of agriculture's contribution to the U.S. economy's gross domestic product."

Click here for more information or to register. The report will be available here when it is released.

Monday, August 29, 2022

James Fallows returns to smaller towns: 'The rest of the country is in trouble. In my town, we are working things out.'

Deborah Fallows in her hometown (Photo by James Fallows)
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
--T.S. Eliot, "Lttle Gidding," The Four Quartets, 1943

The boldfaced words in the penultimate stanza of Eliot's poem are the title of the latest post by James Fallows on Breaking the News, his Substack site. The subhead says, "Eliot wasn't writing about the Ohio of 2022. But he could have been." The post continues Fallows's and his wife Deborah's exploration of civic life in America's small towns, logged in their book, Our Towns: A journey into the heart of America. Here is the entire article, which is in the public domain.

By James Fallows

This post is about the challenge of knowing one’s own country—a challenge that is almost an impossibility for a country as large, diverse, contradictory, and rapidly changing as the United States. The same of course applies in China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, “the Arab world,” and other places.

But what Americans “know” about this moment for their country seems skewed in ways that are dangerous and destructive—yet potentially correctable. I hope you will bear this dispatch in mind the next time you hear a report on “a nation on the cusp of civil war,” or “Red and Blue America, with no common ground in between.”

I’ll start by declaring my premises on three points. Then I’ll give a list of illustrations from the past seven days that my wife, Deb, and I recently spent in parts of America not usually covered in the news.

Three principles: Here are three points that guide what I write about America and the world.

1. Keeping contradictory truths in mind.

Through the years Deb and I were living in China, it would drive me crazy when experts would opine from afar on what was good or bad about the place. The certainty of their views and the sweep of their theories seemed directly connected to how little they’d seen of the country, except at some internationalized conference center in Beijing or Shanghai or Sanya.

By contrast, most reporters on-scene tried constantly to portray how China was both better and worse than it seemed from afar. Both stronger and weaker, both more likable and more off-putting, both more tender and more cruel. And that the main challenge in dealing with it was trying to keep these contradictions in mind. This is one of many reasons it’s bad for the world that Xi Jinping’s government is making it so hard for foreign reporters and foreigners in general to be inside China.

2. The arc of loss and rebirth—and how a culture stays ‘young’

Through the years I have lived in and studied American history, I’ve come to believe that the through-line in the nation’s story is constant loss, and constant creation.

The loss and change are certain: Name your decade since the 1620s, and I can name the emergency or tragedy of its times. Name your American family, and its background will include hardship and dislocation. Name your community, and it will have gone through significant ups and downs. For instance: Bend, Oregon, now one of the country’s most desirable locations, had some of the worst unemployment in the country 30-plus years ago, when the logging and timber industries collapsed. At about the same time, the now-celebrated Greenville, South Carolina, had a textile-based economy. Nearly all of those mills have disappeared, but Greenville has adjusted and prospered.

For arc-of-history purposes, the question is always how the creation in any given era balances against the destruction. Who is helped and hurt; how the gains offset the losses; who is able to recover; how to protect those who cannot. Change is a given; adjustment to change is the variable, and the one more within our control.

The older people become, the more likely they are to mourn how things “used to be.” The younger they are, by the calendar or in spirit, the more likely they are to think about what comes next.

When people say that America is a “young” country, this is what they mean. Despite having the oldest continuous form of government of any major country, and apart from immigration giving the U.S. a lower median age, what makes America young is an orientation ahead, rather than behind.
3. ‘The rest of the country is in trouble. In my town we are working things out.’

Through the decade in which Deb and I have reported on the goods and bads of smaller-town American life, we’ve become convinced that national media’s focus on “heartland” America mainly as an arena for Red-vs-Blue political showdowns (“guy in a diner”) has a profoundly distorting effect. As someone wrote about this problem:

"An important part of the face of modern America has slipped from people’s view, in a way that makes a big and destructive difference in the country’s public and economic life. Despite the economic crises of the preceding decade and the social tensions of which every American is aware, most parts of the United States that we visited have been doing better, in most ways, than most Americans realize. Because many people don’t know that, they’re inclined to view any local problems as symptoms of wider disasters, and to dismiss local successes as fortunate anomalies. They feel even angrier about the country’s challenges than they should, and even more fatalistic about the prospects of dealing with them."

As you’ve guessed, that someone is me, in the introduction to the book Our Towns. I wrote that four years ago; I am here to tell you that Deb and I believe this all the more strongly now than before the pandemic.

Because virtually the only thing Americans know about the parts of the country where they don’t live is the non-stop crisis narrative of national media, they naturally think the country’s problems are even worse than they are. In the parts of life they experience directly, people can see the goods and bads in perspective, and recognize not just possibilities for progress but encouraging practical steps. It’s hard to realize that all across the country, people who are never in the news are innovating and progressing in similar ways.

Now let’s make this specific.

Over a seven-day period this month, Deb and I interviewed and met people in six smallish, and very small, towns and villages in northwest Ohio. This is where Deb grew up, on the shores of Lake Erie, and where she considers herself “from.”

It’s also an area that, if it ever appears in the national news, is usually in the context of “despair and division in the heartland,” the latest Biden approval ratings, what the Vance-Ryan Senate race means for next year’s legislative agenda, and why Arizona and Nevada have become “swing states” but Ohio no longer is.

All those things matter.

But here are some of the other things that matter but are rarely if ever in the national news, and therefore are not part of general understanding of “how America is doing.” Each of these is a place marker for upcoming more detailed reports by Deb and me at the Our Towns site.

The community foundation. Findlay, Ohio, is the county seat of Hancock County, with a city population of more than 40,000. It’s the regional hub. Over the past three decades, the Findlay-Hancock County Community Foundation, headquartered there, has become a force in regional well-being whose effects can be compared to those of the great Gilded Age philanthropies in Pittsburgh. (Mellon, Frick, Carnegie, Heinz, etc.) Everywhere we went in the area we saw the Community Foundation’s imprint. What it has done deserves study and emulation.

As far as we can tell, this Community Foundation, which is transforming a region, has not been mentioned in mainstream national news.

Family Center. One of the Community Foundation’s projects in Findlay is the “Family Center,” in a former large grocery-store building on the north side of town. The insight behind this Center was the importance of combining a range of non-profit services—medical and dental clinics, housing and homelessness assistance, legal aid, a library, a food pantry and thrift shop, and more—all in one place. That way, as we heard, families for whom a $20 taxi ride was a decisive barrier could do all their business in one attractive and dignified place.

We have not seen anything like this in other cities. It’s a story worth learning from. Again, as far as we can tell, it has not been featured in the national news.

Sandusky on all cylinders. Sandusky is the county seat of Erie County, on the lake, and has a population of just over 25,000. More is going on there, in more different areas and directions, than I can even suggest at the moment. I’ll give just two illustrations.

First, we happened to be there at a moment when the national spotlight hit Sandusky. At an event on the waterfront, a trans-partisan group got together to announce good news on the “infrastructure unites us all” front. Rob Portman, the outgoing Republican senator from Ohio; Marcy Kaptur, the very Democratic representative from the district; and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend and now secretary of transportation, were on hand to celebrate Sandusky’s success in winning a competitive $25 million grant for local road, transit, and bike improvements.

From  left: Tom Horsman, City of Sandusky; Kha Bui, brewery owner;
City Manager Eric Wobser; James Fallows (Photo by Deb Fallows)
Second, one of the most impressive breweries-and-pubs you will find anyplace in America is in downtown Sandusky, founded by Kha Bui, who was born in Saigon, then left as a child on a boat into the South China Sea and spent several years in refugee camps. The brewery is called CLAG, and the adjoining restaurant/pub is called Small Cities. Each time we went near the place, it was packed. Kha Bui’s idea is to sell certain lines of his beer only at the taphouse and restaurant, so that people will have to come to Sandusky to get it. Again as far as we can tell, they have not been in the national news.
Sandusky, in perspective. When reporting from “they’ve already succeeded” towns, like Greenville or Bend or Burlington, Vermont, Deb and I often wondered what it would have been like to be there ten years earlier.

I think it would be like being in Sandusky now.

And this is not even to talk about the school system or the faith community. Or a new branch of Bowling Green State University. Or other aspects we will return to.

Villages, challenging what you think about small-town Ohio. One of the Community Foundation’s many projects in Hancock County has been supporting smaller villages’ enrollment in the Community Heart & Soul® process. (Heart & Soul has been a partner and supporter of Our Towns reporting.) The three villages we visited — village is the technical term — that had been through this process were really small. Mount Blanchard’s population is around 500. Arlington’s, about 1,500. And McComb’s, about 1,600 — though it also is home to the largest cookie-and-cracker factory in the country. That will be a story of its own.

Yet each of these communities, surrounded by corn and soybean farms, and with a population base smaller than an average city block in New York or Chicago, has engaged in a systematic civic-engagement process to help it identify what its residents most care about, and where it should invest its efforts.

Mount Blanchard discovered and rehabilitated old ball-playing fields that had been left neglected. It has better park facilities than most places with 20 times its population. Arlington has attracted young people back to town, and has ambitious retail and restaurant investments. (For instance, Hurdwell.) And in McComb, we met fully 1% of the town’s total population — the equivalent of 7,000 people in our current home town of Washington, D.C. — at a meeting to discuss already-approved plans to build more housing, and in-progress plans for a revived downtown. More on all of these to come. But in all of these tiny communities, we saw counter-examples to the idea that Americans no longer engage with their neighbors.

Vermilion, which is Deb’s homeland, has deliberately made the most of its assets, which are a lakeside setting and still-extant traditional architecture. Its streets, shops, and restaurants were jammed when we visited two days ago.

We didn’t ask any of these people in any of these places for their views of national politics. But in all of them, from the larger cities to the smallest settlements, people younger and older, Black and white, volunteered their optimism about prospects for their communities. In one of them, a civic leader took us through all the “used to be” sites — the gas station, the grocery store, the hardware store. “They’re all gone,” he said. “But I know that towns like this are coming back.”

Is this the full American story of these days? Of course not, and no one knows where these village-by-village ambitions will lead.

But it is part of the story, And part that is too often left out.

The names and the impacts of Gannett's newsroom layoffs: At one daily in Ohio, the sole reporter covers only sports

The Jeffersonian's building (Photo by Kristi Garabrandt)
The story of the latest rounds of newsroom layoffs at Gannett Co. newspapers is slowly becoming one of names more than numbers, and of the impacts on communities. Elahe Izadi, media reporter at The Washington Post, rounded up several examples, some of them startling, for a story over the weekend.

Izadi's first citation is a daily newspaper in Ohio that now has no news reporters: The Daily Jeffersonian, better known as The Daily Jeff, in Cambridge, Ohio, pop. 10,000, seat of Guernsey County, pop. 38,000. Mayor Tom Orr "has seen the Daily Jeff shrink its staff, cut back on printed papers [now three times a week] and publish photos from faraway communities," Izadi reports. He told her, “I love this town and I don’t like to see it suffer, and that’s what this is causing it to do: suffer.”

Laid-off reporter Kristi Garabrandt told Izadi, “The community paper is pretty much what holds your community together.” There's not much of that on the paper's home page; it's mainly sports stories (the paper still has a sports reporter and freelancers) and a subscribers-only story about the stock price of Intel Corp., which is building a computer-chip plant 75 miles to the west, near Columbus.

At The Columbus Dispatch, one staffer on the layoff list was Darrel Rowland, a reporter and editor there for 31 years. He told Izadi, “I can point to laws that were changed because of our reporting. How do people find out what their elected officials are up to? How are they finding out how their tax money is being spent? To me, [these] are the basic, fundamental questions and one of the fundamental reasons for journalism to exist.”

Izadi reports, "Rowland has also seen his paper shrink from 200 employees to 70, and eliminate its statehouse bureau and rely instead on a centralized Gannett bureau that feeds stories to all Ohio papers, effectively making local papers less local. . . . Now, Rowland worries whether newspapers have the resources and expertise to dig through millions of records the way he and others did on consequential stories, such as inflated prescription-drug prices."

The Poynter Institute has tallied at least 70 layoffs across 54 newsrooms by Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain. Poynter's Angela Fu reports, "It remains unclear exactly how many people were let go."

Judges like remote video courts, but it's not the best option for many rural folks, maybe even if the technology is good

State courts around "are seeing the benefits of virtual proceedings . . . that proved their value during the Covid-19 pandemic," but "Rural residents can have trouble accessing remote court proceedings," report Maia Spoto and Jason Alder of Bloomberg Law. "The problem is they sometimes lack reliable broadband internet access, forcing courts to get creative or rely on conference calls as the second-best option, said judges, attorneys, court administrators, and scholars in 20 interviews."

The challenge should be seen as an opportunity to improve the justice system, said Stanford Law School professor Nora Freeman Engstrom said: “How often is it that you get to clear the decks and reimagine? How do we harness technology while keeping the focus on maximizing our key objectives: participation, transparency, equity, and accessibility? To make it as good as it was before isn’t good enough.”

In California, "Cases concerning children and their families are moving faster and helping clear backlogs," and "In rural states, remote court has the benefit of reducing travel time that can add up when courthouses are far away," the reporters note. "People who work in North Dakota oil fields no longer need to lose a day of work to attend a half-hour court appearance."

But the Federal Communications Commission estimates that 14.5 million Americans "still don’t have access to broadband internet, though an organization that independently reviewed FCC data estimated the number is roughly 42 million," Spoto and Alder note. "About a quarter of adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year reported not owning a smartphone in a 2021 Pew Research Center survey. And around four in 10 with lower incomes said they didn’t have a desktop or laptop."

Judges and legal-aid groups are using technology kiosks, loaner tablets, and “justice buses” to bridge the digital divide, Spoto and Alder report: "Minnesota and Texas are among states creating or planning to create spaces stocked with tech and internet in libraries and other public places. . . . Mobile clinic vans, often stocked with wi-fi, computers, and pro bono lawyers, drive to some rural areas with poor internet access to help residents log into court hearings and obtain legal information, Legal Services Corp. program analyst for technology Jane Ribadeneyra said. These 'justice buses' roll through states such as New York, Ohio, and California."

But, but: "Iowa Legal Aid litigation director Alex Kornya cautioned against 'breathless utopianism' about court technology. Even where video is an option, it may be harder to empathize with defendants in virtual courts. 'There is something about looking someone in the eye when you are going to deny something that is very important,' Kornya said. 'Not having to do that makes it easier to say no.'"

Carbon market opening up for smaller forest landowmners

Forester Sarah Hall-Bagdonas talks with Sara Velazquez and Dan
Nelson. (Reuters photo by Carey Biron via The Daily Yonder)
Major rural landowners and philanthropies such as The Nature Conservancy are active players in the carbon market, which pays them for not cutting trees, which use carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas. That's been more difficult for small landowners, but now the American Forest Foundation has a landowners with as little as 30 acres, and such programs are likely to be boosted by the climate bill recently signed by President Biden, reports Carey Biron for the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Two landowners in the Family Forest Carbon Program are Sara Velasquez and Dan Nelson, who bought 55 acres of forest in northeast Pennsylvania to build their home. "Just after they purchased the land in 2019, however, the pandemic forced them both out of work, raising concerns about how to pay the annual taxes on the land," Biron reports. Neighbors who see logging as "free money up in the woods" asked them about that, but "Now they think they have found a different solution."

The credits that Velasquez and Nelson get under a 20-year contract for preventing "climate-changing emissions will in turn be sold to help corporations such as outdoor outfitter REI move toward their 'net zero' emissions goals," Biron writes. "Velazquez and Nelson, in turn, receive cash that helps them cover their tax payments, plan for revitalizing the forest and, for now, stay away from logging."

Private companies are also in the game. "NCX, which uses satellite imagery and artificial intelligence to gauge carbon-storage potential on small land holdings. It then sells carbon credits," Biron reports. "Since last year, the company has enrolled nearly 2,500 U.S. landowners who hold over 4 million acres, with a median size of around 200 to 400 acres per landowner, it said."

The climate bill has "$450 million to push private landowners toward forest-management practices with climate benefits, according to the nonprofit American Forests. The bill includes a particular focus on underserved communities and family forest owners," Biron notes.

Southeastern Ky. is 'Climate Zero,' forest hydrologist says

The forks of Troublesome Creek gather at Hindman, Ky. It flows into the North Fork of the Kentucky River near Haddix and Lost Creek. Google Maps image shows much surface mining; the Mine Made Adventure Park is a reclaimed mine. 

America has eight creeks named Troublesome, none as troublesome lately as the one that flows into the North Fork of the Kentucky River. Those two streams and many others rose far out of their banks last month, killing 39 people and leaving thousands homeless. The catastrophe has often defied description, and now journalism must look forward, to what can and should be done. Austin Horn does both today in the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Trouble along Troublesome Creek (Herald-Leader photo)
He starts in Fisty, where Clear Creek flows into Troublesome and the only business on Google Maps is Smith's Scrap Yard, one of several businesses owned by Kelly Smith “I’ve lost 50 years here,” Smith, 67, told Horn. “The flood destroyed everything I got.” Horn sums it up: "A little kingdom in Fisty, mostly gone because of a flood that far exceeded any he’d ever seen. Smith had no insurance. . . . You’ll see dozens more patches of bottomland like Smith’s. Little communities cut off from the road because a bridge washed out, a baseball field whose fences are completely caked."

And the cause? Torrential rains (Including four inches in five hours), likely fueled by climate change; hillsides that couldn't absorb any more water; surface mining and inadequate reclamation, which abound in the watershed; and streams filled with silt and debris from earlier floods. It's too early to quantify each of those, which will take study, but Nicolas Zegre, an associate professor of forest hydrology at the University of West Virginia, points to climate change, in two ways.

"Zegre called Appalachia 'climate zero,' like Patient Zero, or the first person to get a disease in a pandemic," Horn reports. "The region is among the first to face the consequences of a carbon-extractive economy, he said, and that economy fueled by coal in this region fed many families and lined many wallets before suffering a downturn in recent decades." Zegre said, “It’s climate zero because we’re not only the source of part of the carbon, but we’re also disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of more carbon in the atmosphere because our people live in mountainous watersheds. Our entire built environment is within reach of a stream.”

Zegre and Chris Barton, a professor of forest hydrology and watershed management at the University of Kentucky, said the impact of surface mining is uncertain because it leaves flat land that can absorb water instead of flowing down a slope, but reclamation usually compacts rock and soil, limiting absorption. Barton is part of a project that is trying to reforest the Star Fire mine site, midway along the length of Troublesome. Residents of one community in the area have sued a coal company "for the alleged failure of its silt ponds, which they claim led to mass destruction in their community and contamination of their drinking water," Horn reports.

Some officials have called for dredging to clear the streams, "but rules around when groups can dredge are stringent" and the two hydrologists are skeptical, Horn reports: "Natural streams in general have a way of regulating themselves more efficiently than humans, they said. Barton said that it simply isn’t an option in many creeks like Troublesome. Very often, the bottom of those streams aren’t far from bedrock as is. 'The streams are going to naturally cut in floods. When they cut down and get to bedrock, then they start to widen, and that means you’re losing even more of that precious floodplain,' Barton said. 'In a system like this – a mountainous stream system – that wouldn’t be an option. Nature’s taking care of that one.' Zegre said that in certain instances, dredging could be beneficial, but the larger problem is land use – surface mining, road building, tree removal and farming – that changes the natural equilibrium of the watershed."