Friday, January 20, 2023

Flooded Eastern Kentuckians seek higher ground, which coal firms own; radio station and others tell story of recovery

Logo for WEKU series
The record flash flooding in Eastern Kentucky last July has prompted a search for higher ground on which people can live and remain in the region. That's one upshot of an ambitious, collaborative reporting series that began on WEKU, the public radio station of Eastern Kentucky University, this week.

The "Rise" series is about "present realities and future prospects" in the 13 affected counties, host Tom Martin says: "As extreme weather seems to become more frequent, how will efforts to prevent future losses of life and property affect a mountain culture characterized by deep, strong ties to place, family and neighbors? Will enough people remain in the region to keep local tax bases above water for the resources they need to respond when crisis strikes?"

There is a strong consensus that housing is the immediate need, with many people still in temporary housing, Martin reports. Mike Harrison of First Christian Church in Pikeville, said he expects that it will take "two or three years to get people back to normal."

With $37,000 the maximum grant avalable from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, not enough to build a home, many residents are being urged to relocate, but many don't want to leave the region: "This is my home, my everything," one woman said. "I just want people know we still need help, and we're deserving people."

From their devastated hollows, residents look up, to ridgetops and reclaimed surface coal mines, where new neighborhods could be built. But such places generally lack utilities, and most of them are owned by coal and landholding companies that have demonstrated little if any interest in making it available for housing. Kentucky River Properties, former Kentucky River Coal, is the largest landowner in the four hardest-hit counties, lawyer Joe Childers told WEKU. The company has donated $500,000 to housing-development nonoprofits that are building and rehabbing homes.

Rebuilding in Knott County, Kentucky (Photo by Jeanne Marie Hibberd)
Some landowners recently donated 75 acres for a new housing development, which encouraged Gerry Roll, president of the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky: "If this gives even a handful of people in our region some hope there is a better time ahead, there is a better opportunity coming, that gives me joy."

Gov. Andy Beshear said donations are still needed for relief and recovery and the state is "in active negotiations in every county" to find land for housing. UPDATE, Jan. 24: Beshear announced another high-ground development, on 50 acres near Hazard.

"Rise" is produced with the help of several other newsrooms that pay attention to Appalachia: Sam Adams of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader, Anya Slepyan and Joel Cohen of The Daily Yonder, Jared Bennett and Justin Hicks of the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, Alexa Beyer of West Virginia's Mountain State Spotlight and Katie Myers of WMMT, the Appalshop radio station in Whitesburg.

UPDATE: The second segment "focuses on a pre-existing housing shortage made far worse by the destruction and damage of the flood; flood-insurance issues; floodplain mapping; leadership exhaustion and stress; and the work of some of the key non-profit organizations in the region," WEKU says. "The episode is capped by a Chris Begley essay about the nature of mountain communities and how this event is forcing difficult change." Feb. 18: The final segment asks important questions: "While still adjusting to such heavy loss and amid much uncertainty, Eastern Kentuckians are giving careful consideration to the future. In addition to addressing the immediate need for housing on higher ground, that future includes preparing for the possibility of more frequent extreme weather. Is this a turning point? Or just another turn on the curvy road ahead? Residents demonstrate the most important key to a strong community is knowing how to show up for your neighbors."

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