A month after torrential rains inundated parts of eastern Kentucky, state lawmakers gathered in a special session of the General Assembly to pass a $213 million relief package to help affected communities recover and rebuild.
House Bill 1 includes $115 million for local governments, utilities, and nonprofit organizations to restore infrastructure and vital services; $45 million to repair and replace damaged roads and bridges; $40 million for public schools; and nearly $13 million to restore water systems. The measure passed both chambers of the legislature with only one no vote.
“This is a time where we’re all working together to help the people in eastern Kentucky,” says state Rep. John Blanton (R-Salyersville), the sponsor of the legislation. “It’s a Kentucky bill for Kentuckians.”
Legislators tapped the state’s Budget Reserve Trust Fund (sometimes called the Rainy Day Fund) for the bulk of the money, $200 million, with the remainder coming from unused federal pandemic relief dollars under the American Rescue Plan Act.
“This is a first step, I think it’s a bold response,” says former state representative Rocky Adkins, who is now senior advisor to Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear. “Are we done? No. This is the short-term response to get people into shelter with a roof over their head before cold weather.”
Housing Remains a Critical Issue
The National Weather Service estimates between 6 and 16 inches of rain fell over parts of eastern Kentucky between July 25 and 30. The flooding that resulted killed 39 people, including four children, and caused catastrophic damage to homes, businesses, and infrastructure in the mountainous terrain, especially in Breathitt, Clay, Knott, Letcher, and Perry counties.
“I’ve been in floods there, I’ve seen water rise quickly but this is unimaginable,” says Sen. Robin Webb (D-Grayson).
In Whitesburg, Democratic state Rep. Angie Hatton was part of a rescue team that worked to save neighbors during the peak of the flooding. She also worked at relief centers, giving out food and supplies to people she says had nothing left.
“Seeing people that you love and care about in that condition is something that’s going to be really tough for us to deal with,” says Hatton.
Senate President Robert Stivers (R-Manchester) rushed to the area to help in-laws who were stranded after a nearby house was ripped from its foundation by the raging waters and deposited on a bridge, blocking access by rescuers.
“It was by far more widespread than anything this state’s ever seen,” says Stivers.
Officials say hundreds of people have been left homeless because of the disaster. Even houses that weren’t swept away by the flood are uninhabitable, according to Stivers, because of mold and structural damage.
Adkins says state resort parks and campgrounds are housing some 500 people, while another 282 are living in travel trailers. He says the state has negotiated a deal with Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards for 300 travel trailers left over from recovery efforts from Hurricane Ida last year. The only cost to Kentucky will be transporting the vehicles to the commonwealth.
During last week’s special legislative session on flood relief, Sen. Brandon Smith, a Hazard Republican, filed a floor amendment to Senate Bill 1, the companion measure to HB 1, to include an additional $50 million in the recovery package specifically to rebuild housing within the disaster area.
That amendment failed after legislative leaders cautioned that including those funds could jeopardize efforts to get the maximum amount of relief from the federal government. Blanton also says some of the money in the relief package will be used to buy intermediate housing for people who need to move out of temporary shelters.
Hatton says lawmakers didn’t intend to neglect housing needs in HB 1, but she says before rebuilding can occur, state and local officials must first repair critical infrastructure and determine where it will be safe to construct new homes.
“We need to rebuild in communities that are going to be flood proof,” says Hatton. “We have some really intense planning that needs to happen and we weren’t ready yet to start rebuilding houses.”
With the number of homes lost in eastern Kentucky, Hatton and Blanton worry that the region may experience a crippling round of out-migration. Blanton says some of those houses had been in people’s families for generations. But now with that connection washed away, people may see no reason to stay in an area so economically depressed, they say.
A Demand for Better FEMA Response
Lawmakers and state officials are united in their criticism of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They contend FEMA makes it too difficult to request relief, especially for people who have lost everything. They also say the agency denies too many applications and doesn’t provide enough support to truly help those in need.
For example, Hatton says the maximum amount FEMA offers is $37,900, far below what it would actually cost to rebuild an entire home. What’s worse, Hatton says most of the early claimants have received only $2,200 on average.
“It’s insulting,” says Hatton. “These people have lost everything that they’ve worked so hard for.”
Stivers says the federal Stafford Act is to blame for reducing the amount of relief FEMA will give an individual who has already received an insurance payment or aid from local charitable organizations. He encourages victims to go to FEMA first.
“If you get from a foundation $2,500, that’s going to be counted against you when you make your FEMA application,” says Stivers. “So once your FEMA resources are exhausted, then go to the foundation. That’s the way you maximize all funds.”
Adkins says the governor’s office hosted a meeting with representatives from FEMA and mayors and county judge-executives from affected counties to discuss the challenges facing victims and to request better collaboration with local governments. After that discussion, Adkins says approval rates for claims have improved but are still too low. He also says the appeals process still needs to be streamlined.
“The word has come down from the governor and others that this has to be fixed,” says Adkins. “FEMA wasn’t put there to find a way to not do something, you were put there to find a way to do something.”
Blanton echoes those sentiments, saying there’s no excuse for the amount of red tape FEMA forces on victims seeking help.
“I called upon our federal delegation and every federal delegation across this country to fix FEMA... so no other community has to go through what our people’s went through,” says Blanton.
Contributions of Coal Mining and Climate Change to the Flooding
While officials work to advance short- and long-term recovery efforts, other people are questioning why this rain event resulted in so much damage. Eastern Kentucky has experienced flood problems for generations, but nothing to the extent seen last month.
Some are blaming the state’s declining coal industry, which has left the Appalachian landscape littered with abandoned strip mines, leveled mountaintops, acres of deforestation, and streams and creeks clogged with silt. The also link the burning of coal to global warming, which scientists say can contribute to heavier precipitation events.
The region’s lawmakers are reluctant to weigh in on the issues.
“It’s such a divisive topic to some,” says Blanton. “The climate’s been changing ever since the earth existed. Did it have anything to do with this? I have no idea, I’m not a climate expert but I know my people’s hurting.”
Multiple regions have seen 1,000-year rain events in recent weeks from St. Louis, to Dallas, to eastern Kentucky. Stivers says any locale would have trouble handling a historic deluge like what his region saw, and the Appalachian topography only made matters worse.
“You can’t put 11 inches or 12 inches in a 24-hour period in Lexington without getting some serious flooding consequences,” says Stivers. “When you put it in hills and valleys, it’s totally different.”
Adkins says the governor’s office is open to studying how to better control flooding events, but he says people shouldn’t be quick to blame a coal industry that he says helped build eastern Kentucky.
“This was a natural disaster that happened,” says Akins. “The cause? We can debate that.”
Reclaimed strip mines may prove helpful for the future of the region, according to Webb, who is a former coal miner. She says those lands could be used to relocate people and new homes out of flood plains.
Hatton says only about 12 percent of damaged properties were in flood plains, which she says points to a need for updated flood plain maps. But she says even that could be problematic for a region already struggling economically.
“We are very worried that a very large percentage of our county is now going to be flood plain, which is going to, of course, affect property values, affect whether or not we’re able to rebuild there, and, long term, affect whether our current communities are viable.”
Hatton says the federal flood insurance program also needs to be overhauled to make it more available and affordable to people. She says fewer than 2.5 percent of eastern Kentucky victims had flood insurance. She joins with Blanton in pledging to continue bring attention to these issues in Frankfort.
“We are not going to let people forget about our home,” says Hatton.
“Our voices will be heard because they will be loud,” adds Blanton.