JACKSON, Ky. (AP) — Evelyn Smith lost everything in floods that devastated eastern Kentucky, saving only her grandson’s muddy tricycle. But she has no intention of leaving the mountains that have been her home for 50 years.
Like many families in this dense, forested region of hills, deep valleys and winding streams, Smith’s roots run deep. His family has lived in Knott County for five generations. They bonded with people who supported them, even as a region long mired in poverty lost more jobs with the collapse of the coal industry.
After rapidly rising floodwaters from nearby Troublesome Creek submerged his rental trailer, Smith moved in with his mother. At 50, she is disabled, suffering from a chronic respiratory disorder, and knows that she will not return to where she used to live; his owner told him that he would not put the trailers back in the same place. Smith, who had no insurance, doesn’t know what his next move will be.
“I cried until I couldn’t cry anymore,” she said. “I’m just in shock. I don’t really know what to do now.
For many people who have lost their homes, connections with family and neighbors will only become more important after the floods destroyed homes and businesses and engulfed small towns. Yet in a part of the state that includes seven of the nation’s 100 poorest counties, according to the US Census Bureau, they might not be enough for people already living on the margins.
“The poor people of eastern Kentucky are truly some of the most disadvantaged people in our entire country,” said Evan Smith, an attorney with the Appalachian Research and Advocacy Fund, which provides free legal services to people with low incomes. income and vulnerable. “And for those who have now lost vehicles, homes, loved ones, it’s hard for me to see how they are recovering from this.”
“I mean, people will,” Smith added. “People are sometimes more resilient than we can imagine. But without some kind of state and national help, I don’t know what we’re going to do.
He thinks some people who can afford to leave will, with younger people – less likely than their elders to try to rebuild where they are – more likely to seek employment elsewhere.
Coal once dominated the economy in this corner of Appalachia, providing the best-paying jobs in a place that struggled to support other types of work, but production has fallen about 90% since the height of 1990, according to a state report. . And as production declined, jobs disappeared.
The record flooding “couldn’t have come at a worse time,” said Doug Holliday, a 73-year-old attorney in Hazard, Ky., who represents miners with black lung disease and other health issues.
“The coal business has run out of steam and a lot of people have left,” Holliday said. “The people who stay are living paycheck to paycheck or Social Security, and most of them live in mobile homes on the periphery of the economy.”
Holliday believes an old friend died in one of these mobile homes, which was washed away by floodwaters and has not been seen since. He’s not the only one trying to account for people in what Gov. Andy Beshear called “one of the most severe and devastating floods” in Kentucky history.
There is a chance that the legacy of the coal industry, however diminished, has made the floods worse. The hardest-hit areas of eastern Kentucky received between 8 and 10 1/2 inches (20-27 centimeters) of rain over 48 hours, and land degradation caused by coal mining may have changed enough the landscape to help push the rivers and streams. to peak at record highs.
“Decades and decades of surface mining and mountain top extraction prevent the earth from helping to absorb some of this runoff during periods of high rainfall,” said Emily Satterwhite, director of studies. on Appalachia at Virginia Tech.
The North Fork of the Kentucky River reached 20.9 feet (6.4 meters) at Whitesburg – more than 6 feet (1.8 meters) above the previous record – and peaked at a record 43, 5 feet (13.25 meters) in Jackson, National Weather Service meteorologist Brandon Obligations said.
Melinda Hurd, 27, was forced to leave her home in Martin, Ky., on Thursday afternoon when the Big Sandy River surged up her steps – then kept coming.
“As soon as I walked down my steps, it was waist high,” she said. She is staying with two of her dogs at Jenny Wiley State Park in Prestonsburg, about 20 minutes from her home.
Hurd’s neighbors weren’t so lucky; some were stuck on their roofs, waiting to be rescued.
“I know our whole basement is destroyed,” she said. “But I feel very, very lucky. I don’t think it will be a total loss.
Hurd has a paid job caring for an elderly woman, which means she has no insurance or benefits.
Hurd’s home was also flooded in 2009 on Mother’s Day, destroying almost everything inside. She then received financial assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and will likely need more help this time around.
During a briefing with Beshear, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said more help was on the way. And the governor has opened an online portal for donations to flood victims.
Satterwhite said many residents will want to stay, held in place by attachments to extended families and support networks that sustain them through good times and bad.
Smith, the woman who recovered her 2-year-old grandson’s tricycle, said the rapidly rising water forced her off her trailer around 1.30am Thursday.
“Everything in there is covered in mud,” she said. “There’s probably 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 centimeters) of mud in the parts. The walls are all waterlogged all the way up.
Despite all this, she does not leave Knott County. She thinks she could never do it.
“It’s the mountain,” she said. “It’s the land, it’s the people connecting to make it a home.”
Contributors include Anita Snow in Phoenix and Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida. Selsky reported from Salem, Oregon and Schreiner from Frankfort, Ky.