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Floods took their family homes. Many don't know when — or if — they'll get help

Laverne Fields' home was washed down into a creek by recent flooding in Millstone, Ky.
Jared Hamilton for WMMT/OVR
Laverne Fields' home was washed down into a creek by recent flooding in Millstone, Ky.

WHITESBURG, Ky. — Laverne Fields and her family have been living in a camper by the side of the road in Millstone, Ky., for more than a month.

In late July, a week of intense storms turned the quiet mountain stream behind her mobile home into a raging river. More than six feet of water swept her trailer from its foundation. Fields and her family barely escaped before the force of the water shattered the trailer across the creek, where half of it still sits, its contents spilling out. She'd just paid the trailer off a year ago.

"One of the men from FEMA said, 'You guys are tough,' because they said they couldn't live like this," said Fields.

She applied for aid, but says she was rejected.

Temperatures in the 90s and humidity levels of 70% or more have come in waves after the flood.

Around high noon in the heat of the sun, Fields settled in a lawn chair in front of her camper. The only flat space they'd had to set up camp was a gravel strip by the roadside, without much in the way of trees or shade. Around her, two teenagers and a young child sought shade under a blue tarp that stretched across the campsite.

"It gets really hot in there," Fields said. "Me and the baby has breathing problems."

Mary Baker, Dino McBee, Gina Tryee, and Melissa McBee rest outside of the camper where some of them are staying due to damage to their homes in recent flooding.
/ Jared Hamilton for WMMT/OVR
/
Jared Hamilton for WMMT/OVR
Mary Baker, Dino McBee, Gina Tryee, and Melissa McBee rest outside of the camper where some of them are staying due to damage to their homes in recent flooding.

Fields draws disability and needs oxygen, but says she's been having trouble getting it refilled. She runs a generator occasionally. There's no electricity or running water in the camper.

"We bathe morning and night with wet wipes," Fields said.

A church group has promised to deliver the family a single-wide sometime in the fall, so they're holding on till then. But the nights are starting to get cold, and rain still makes them nervous.

A Long Road Ahead

In eastern Kentucky it's been more than a month since record flooding left 39 people dead. Across 13 flood-ravaged counties, more than 13,000 households have applied for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and that number is still rising. But just over half that number have been approved. There's still no official count of damaged homes, or of people who are now homeless.

Last month, Kentucky lawmakers passed a $213 million flood-relief plan. It funds school districts and infrastructure repairs, as well as intermediate housing. Critics say it does not provide for long-term housing and rebuilding.

In a recent news conference, Gov. Andy Beshear assured residents he's working as quickly as he can to house people safely. But, he said, it won't happen overnight.

"I know it's hard, but this is a several year rebuilding project," Beshear said.

The rebuilding has moved from a response phase into what Beshear calls a "stabilization phase." Congregate shelters set up immediately after the flood have begun to close.

Officials try to fill the gap in other ways. More than 300 people live in government-provided and personal trailers throughout Kentucky's state parks, with many more on the waiting list. In Carr Creek State Park, what was once a recreational campground has become a makeshift community of more than 30 families.

At a picnic table in the park, surrounded by her toddler's toys, Kayla Morton tried to stay positive. Morton's family is sleeping in an RV, which, she says, is at least better than a tent.

"We understand the situation we're in, and we're OK with being here for a while," Morton said.

Morton was a renter before the waters submerged her house in the town of Whitesburg. She and her husband tried at first to stay in a local motel, but the $75-a-night cost was well beyond their budget.

"We didn't have anywhere to stay and there was nowhere to rent, because there's so many homes that are lost," Morton said, as her child tugged at her sleeve. "This was really our only option."

Things could be worse. Morton used to run a nonprofit focused on delivering birthday gifts to children in need, so she's passed the time organizing activities for the kids in the park. As donations by church groups and concerned neighbors have threatened to overwhelm the park's capacity to store them, Morton has worked with the park manager to sort and distribute, and put out calls for specific needs.

But as autumn creeps closer, hot days have been followed by chilly nights. The campground is not equipped for the cold. And Morton is sure they're in for six to seven months of this, at least.

"There's families here that have five and six kids living in a camper," Morton said. No one's quite sure how they'll get to school. "And you know, these kids are going to be stuck in here in the wintertime."

Even those who've received aid are struggling to get cost estimates to FEMA. Derenia Dunbar considers herself lucky: her parents are living with her, are alive and well. But now, she spends all her time trying to track down contractors. They tell her to be patient, they're working seven days a week to get to everybody.

"They are so busy, they have to put you on the list," Dunbar said.

It's a race against the clock, and everyone's in the race. Cold weather without central heating and insulation means broken pipes and other problems.

During the past couple of weeks, a flurry of volunteers have come by to help her gut her parents' house. A hundred years of wallpaper and flooring is now stripped down to the studs – wet insulation and flooring removed.

As a volunteer group inspected their house for mold, Dunbar's dad, James Earl Boggs, stood beside her. Boggs worked all his life in a strip mine. He has silicosis now, better known as black lung disease. Worries about his safety made the work urgent.

"You gotta let it sit to make sure mold don't grow upstairs or anything," she said, referring to the current stripped-down state of the house. "Dad has breathing problems. We have to make sure that is getting cleaned."

Climate change brings questions for mountain communities

In the town of Bulan, in Perry County, Terry Thies walks around the bare floors of the house she grew up in. She lives with her boyfriend now in his place a few miles down the road, and she said she'll have to take out loans to rebuild her house, which was paid off long ago.

"I'm 69 and I'm going to have to have a mortgage," Thies said. "For the first time in my life."

Her neighbors are all having to rebuild, and many may have to start over. Thies doesn't know how they will manage it. Many are elderly, have lived here all their lives, and not all of them will be able to return safely. And this was a flood nobody had expected, and nobody was prepared for it.

Before this, Thies said, water had never gotten into the house. "It never got any higher than that second step."

Scientists have repeatedly warned that climate change means flooding and that it's getting more frequent and severe. Eastern Kentucky, along with most of central Appalachia, is slated to receive more intense storms as heat and humidity increases. In the region's narrow valleys, that means more intense flash flooding. Experts say the region's coal mining industry contributes to climate change and reduces topsoil and dense forest that could blunt the impact of heavy rainfall.

Reporting by the Mountain State Spotlight, a West Virginia independent news organization, and its partner radio collaborative Ohio Valley ReSource, showed that despite state hazard-mitigation plans and multiple serious floods over the past decade, little action has been taken at a local level in eastern Kentucky.

Derena Dunbar shows a cell phone photo of her father's home damaged during the recent flood in Millstone, Ky.
/ Jared Hamilton for WMMT/OVR
/
Jared Hamilton for WMMT/OVR
Derena Dunbar shows a cell phone photo of her aunt's home damaged during the recent flood in Millstone, Ky.

Still, everyone interviewed for this story says they don't plan to move away. For Derenia Dunbar, and so many more in eastern Kentucky, connection to land and home goes back generations.

"We're family here," Dunbar said.

Dunbar's under no illusions that it will be easy.

"It's kind of like the road's real crooked instead of straight for everybody," she said. "It's just real crooked. You have to stop at a couple of places, you know?"

Hundreds more trailers are expected to arrive soon, carted in from other disasters in western Kentucky and Louisiana, from tornadoes and hurricanes. Utility crews are working as quickly as they can to restore service to areas still without water and power.

Most affected schools will resume classes in late September.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Katie Myers
Katie Myers is covering economic transition in east Kentucky for the ReSource and partner station WMMT in Whitesburg, KY. She previously worked directly with communities in Kentucky and Tennessee on environmental issues, energy democracy, and the digital divide, and is a founding member of a community-owned rural ISP. She has also worked with the Black in Appalachia project of East Tennessee PBS. In her spare time, Katie likes to write stage plays, porch sit with friends, and get lost on mountain backroads. She has published work with Inside Appalachia, Scalawag Magazine, the Daily Yonder, and Belt Magazine, among others.