JACKSON, Ky. – Teresa Watkins worked to salvage a few mud-caked belongings from her home on a Breathitt County branch of the Kentucky River after floods slammed her neighborhood July 28 for the second time in 17 months.
The 54-year-old, who has lived off Quicksand Road since she was a teenager, said the flooding in recent years – “more and more, worse and worse” – has left difficult dilemmas in a county where median household incomes of $29,538 are less than half the national average.
She pointed to a mobile home one family abandoned last year. More say they’re leaving for safer areas, she said, but it’s not that easy.
“I don’t know how they can afford it or where they’re going to go. Any property is basically along the river line or creek banks," she said. "And if they go up on the mountains, the mountains slide."
Devastating floods that killed at least 37 people in Kentucky and damage in other parts of Appalachia, including Virginia and West Virginia, raise urgent questions about how to mitigate the impact of hazardous flooding that is likely to increase as climate change leads to more extreme weather.
In one of America’s most economically depressed regions, there are few easy answers.
The region’s mountainous landscape, high poverty rates, dispersed housing in remote valleys, coal-mining scars that accelerate floods and under-resourced local governments all make solutions extremely difficult.
Measures such as flood wells, drainage systems or raising homes are expensive for cash-strapped counties. Buyouts or building restrictions are difficult in areas where safer options and home construction are limited. Many are unable or unwilling to uproot.
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, and promises no quick relief.
“If we had all the money in the world, and we had the political will and cooperation, we could go a long way towards solving these problems,” said Bill Haneberg, director of the Kentucky Geological Survey and a professor of Earth and environmental sciences at the University of Kentucky.
Even as Kentucky's devastation renews attention to long-standing challenges, some residents said they have little hope that effective protections will arrive anytime soon.
The emphasis is on trying to rebuild what was lost. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said he may call a special legislative session for more aid to the region, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency provides housing and other help.
Repeat floods have prompted some officials to search for longer-term answers. Buchanan County, Virginia, for example, is drawing up a plan to identify projects to blunt flooding’s impact. Those projects would still have to be paid for.
Some residents are fatalistic or doubt the government can do much. Others push for more protections in areas where many have few options to move and can’t afford flood insurance.
In the Buchanan County community of Pilgrim’s Knob, Sherry Honaker, 55, watched crews remove debris from her niece's home on Dismal Creek. It was gutted in a major flood about two weeks before the Kentucky floods – the county’s second this year.
“Something needs to be done,” she said.
How susceptible is Appalachia?
Central Appalachia is no stranger to flooding. The latest high water in eastern Kentucky broke records, and experts expect more to follow.
Amid the larger pattern of extreme weather in the USA, from wildfires to heat waves, meteorologists and climate scientists say human-driven climate change comes with a warmer atmosphere capable of holding more moisture.
That can mean more bouts of intense rainfall, and more rain in a short period fuels flash flooding, said Antonia Sebastian, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill specializing in flood resilience and mitigation.
The region’s topography contributes to how “flashy” a flood can be, Sebastian said.
The steep slopes of the Appalachians allow water to rush quickly into the narrow valleys, sometimes swamping hollows before residents have a chance to escape.
In 2019, an Inside Climate News analysis of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stream flow data and satellite images of disturbed land from strip mining found areas such as the Big Sandy watershed, which straddles the Kentucky and West Virginia state line, to be among the most threatened by climate-change-driven extreme weather within the Ohio River Basin.
The region’s history of coal mining, as well as logging, can exacerbate flooding, experts said, by altering the landscape.
In surface mining, trees are the first to go, then sometimes hundreds of feet of rock are blasted away from the tops and sides of mountains to get at underground seams of coal.
“Normally, on a forested hillside, the trees and their roots will absorb 40% to 50% of the rain that falls, then slowly release it,” said Jack Spadaro, a former top federal mine safety engineer. After mining, surfaces robbed of vegetation facilitate flash flooding, he said.
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Housing patterns contribute to the area’s vulnerability. Many residences are scattered in smaller communities along a road that often winds along a creek lined with steep hillsides.
In Kentucky’s Breathitt County, half of all homes are at a high risk of flooding, according to data provided to USA TODAY by the First Street Foundation, a research and technology nonprofit that tracks flood risks.
The same is true of 46% of homes in the state's Perry County and 58% in Letcher County.
"You hear people say, 'Oh, you know, they shouldn't live in a flood plain. They should move someplace else.' But if you look at a lot of these towns, there are really not a lot of good options," Haneberg said.
Added to that is the area’s economic vulnerability. Many residents cannot afford flood insurance.
Amid coal’s decline, good jobs are hard to find. Breathitt County’s poverty rate is 28%, more than twice the national rate of 11%. The median home value of $53,000 is less than a quarter of the national average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The region has higher rates of chronic disease, and populations have fallen in recent decades.
Jessica Willett, 34, whose remote Jackson home was pushed downstream by flooding while she and her two children were inside, said she was nervous about rebuilding on Bowling Creek.
But she doesn't want to leave her home.
“My aunt down the road, she is going to move. She lost everything," she said. "It’s just hard because down here, there’s a lot of family land. We want our kids and grandkids to grow up on it.”
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Standing near Dismal Creek in Virginia, Honaker looked over a giant pile of rubble. She said she wants officials to ramp up unclogging draining culverts or increasing the creek’s depth.
She looked at her niece’s home: “Maybe stilts would have helped,” she said.
Though it’s impossible to halt heavy rains and flooding, counties and towns can consider measures to limit their impact, said Tee Clarkson, a principal at First Earth 2030, a company helping Buchanan County develop its flood resiliency plan.
That could include flood walls, strengthening creek banks, dredging creeks to greater depths and expanding piping and drainage systems, he said. Houses could be raised on stilts.
“It’s hard to keep areas from flooding, but you want to lower the pain points” for residents and infrastructure, he said.
U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican who represents eastern Kentucky, said that in an area with a "long and daunting history of flooding," he helped secure more than $800 million over 40 years to help build flood walls, levees, tunnels and other public safety projects.
"However, this flash flood was a natural disaster that turned small creeks and mountain runoff into raging rivers that charted a new destructive course through our valleys and hollows," he said. "These types of floods have always been one of the greatest challenges to mitigate in the mountains, and I will continue to advocate for every possible resource that we can afford to protect our mountain communities.”
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What could help, experts said, is tackling the hundreds of thousands of acres of former mine land in Appalachia still to be reclaimed, according to a report in 2021 by the environmental group Appalachian Voice.
Counties can restrict building or add stricter building requirements, but that is easiest for new construction – in Perry County, Kentucky, few new building permits were issued in recent years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Perry County Judge-Executive Scott Alexander said he looks for ways to make his county more flood-resilient, such as raising bridges or expanding reservoirs. He said a discussion might include raising homes in flood-prone areas.
“We’ve got to start looking at preventive flooding measures,” he said. He cautioned that “when you get to 12 inches of rain, especially in Appalachia, there's not a whole lot of anything that can handle that.”
FEMA buyouts have been an option, but they take time and can be fraught with potential harm, Sebastian said. The central Appalachian population is one of the poorest in the country and moving that population out of a region with a generally low cost of living could bring further economic hardship.
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The properties in the most flood-prone areas tend to be the most affordable, further endangering the very poorest Appalachians, said Colette Easter, president of Kentucky’s section of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
“That involves gut-wrenching questions about moving away from a place that you've lived for a very long time, maybe generations, and you're very connected to,” Eric Dixon, a researcher at the Ohio River Valley Institute, said with a deep sigh. “But maybe you don't have another choice. Maybe that's literally what you have to do. That's the real heartbreaking part of this, I think.”
Flooded residents, to choices
For 15 years, Angie Rosser has lived along the Elk River in Clay County, West Virginia.
In 2016, a powerful flood hit the state, killing 23 people and causing more than $1 billion in damage.
Six years later, Rosser said her community still doesn’t have a grocery store. She hasn’t replaced much of the furniture she lost. In Rosser’s house, you’ll find a bed but no couch and no dining table.
“My house is pretty empty, because I am expecting another flood to happen – which is not a great way to live,” said Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.
Rosser understands the commitment to stay and rebuild shared by many of her neighbors, but “I’m not one of those people,” she said. “If it floods again, I’m out. I can’t do it again. It was just too exhausting.”
That same weary uncertainty has spread across hard-hit counties in Kentucky this week, where the next disaster lurks behind each heavy rainfall to come.
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Dee Davis was a Hazard, Kentucky, kindergartner when a flood devastated the area in 1957. It is seared into his memory. He recalls his grandmother and great-uncle taking a canoe to buy groceries.
“We lost everything,” he said.
That flood 65 years ago set a record water level for the North Fork Kentucky River, at 14.7 feet in Whitesburg. Locals never forgot the damage it wrought.
The most recent flooding put that same river at about 21 feet. The water rushed in with enough force to destroy the U.S. Geological Survey sensor designed to monitor the water level.
On Whitesburg’s Main Street this week, the stuffy odor of mud lingered everywhere. The sidewalks were littered with growing piles of discarded furniture, rubble and children’s toys.
The path ahead starts by reckoning with what was lost.
“You mourn the dead,” Davis said, “and you find a way to go forward.”
James Bruggers reports for Inside Climate News.
Contact USA TODAY national reporter Chris Kenning at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kentucky flooding raises urgent questions about Appalachia's future