HAZARD, Ky. – Firefighters and National Guard crews have poured into eastern Kentucky after days of deadly flooding, rescued by the hundreds of people trapped in the dangerous waters.
Also preparing to send a delegation: the small community of Bremen, Ky., nearly 300 miles away. When Bremen was torn apart by one of the worst tornadoes in state history last year, the mayor of a small town in the eastern part of the state came to help clean up. That town, Hindman, was one of the hardest hit by this week’s flooding. So Bremen’s mayor immediately began planning trips across the state with truckloads of supplies — even as his own community continued to rebuild.
“I said, ‘You were here in December and helped us,'” Bremen Mayor Allen Miller told Hindman’s mayor in a telephone conversation. “‘Now it’s time for me to return the favor.'”
Officials have held back efforts like these as evidence of a kind of generosity ingrained in Kentucky’s culture, a spirit born of generations of hardships in which communities had to rely on each other to get through.
But that cycle of support is also a serious reminder of the turbulence created by the natural disaster that has gripped the state in recent months and which will make recovery from the latest calamity all the more difficult. Officials said on Saturday that at least 25 people have died in the flooding, but it could be weeks before the full extent of the human toll and physical devastation becomes clear.
“I wish I could tell you why we keep getting hit here in Kentucky,” Governor Andy Beshear said at a briefing in which he informed residents of the rising death toll and showed a sense of fear and exhaustion that many in the state have felt after recurring disasters, including a powerful ice storm last year that cut off power to 150,000 people in eastern Kentucky, a flash flood last July that left many stranded in their homes, and the rare December tornadoes that spanned a nearly 200-mile path. of destruction and 80 people killed.
“I wish I could tell you why areas where people might not have much are still getting hit and losing everything,” the governor continued. “I can’t give you the why, but I know what we do in response. And the answer is all we can.”
These disasters – especially the floods and tornadoes – would be huge setbacks for any community. But here it was mainly disastrous, striking rural areas that were already very vulnerable after decades of decay.
“These places weren’t thriving before,” said Jason Bailey, the executive director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, an impartial think tank, pointing to the erosion of the coal industry and the loss of industry jobs. “To even get back to where they were is a long way.”
For communities inundated by the powerful floods, that road is just beginning.
The worst devastation is concentrated in about half a dozen Appalachian counties on the eastern edge of the state. At least 14 people, including four children, died in Knott County, officials said. More than 1,400 people have been rescued by boat and helicopter, and thousands are without electricity.
Houses were pulled from their foundations. Bridges have been washed away, rendering some remote communities inaccessible. “I’ve seen ditches come up where there weren’t any ditches because of the flowing water,” said Dan Mosley, the magistrate for Harlan County.
His community only experienced minor flooding, he said, so in recent days he has accompanied workers from the provincial transportation department with dump trucks equipped with snow plows to clear roads blocked by mud and debris in neighboring communities. The worst destruction he saw was in Knott and Letcher Counti
“The sheer catastrophic loss is hard to put into words,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my career or even in my life.”
At least four deaths had been confirmed in Breathitt County, about a dozen people were missing and much of the county was under water. Many houses in the sparsely populated county were still inaccessible. After the last flood, the community was already struggling to survive.
“Less than 12 months ago, we had another flood, a record flood, and a lot of families had just started getting their lives back on track,” said Hargis Epperson, the county coroner. “Now it’s happened all over again, this time worse. Everyone has lost everything twice.”
In Hazard, a town of just over 5,200 in Perry County, 24 adults, five children and four dogs had sought shelter at the First Presbyterian Church — a number that is almost certain to rise in the coming days. Their homes had been flooded or swept away by a mudslide.
Some of them arrived soaked and caked in mud, said Tracy Counts, a Red Cross employee at the church. All she had to offer them were baby wipes; there was no running water.
“It makes it a harder puzzle to solve, but we’re adapting and making it happen,” Ms Counts said. “It’s just hard to ask for help when we’re all in this together.”
Melissa Hensley Powell, 48, was taken to church after being rescued from her home in Hardshell, an unincorporated area of Breathitt County. She and her boyfriend had pulled her brother, who is paralyzed, from their home and then carried a mattress for him to lie on. They kept him dry by putting garbage bags and umbrellas over him.
Two days after her rescue, over a lunch of Little Caesars pizza and bottled water, she said the gravity of what she had endured dawned on me. “It’s starting to happen,” she said. “We’re still in that adrenaline rush.”
At the church, a member of the congregation has rented portable toilets. People have dropped water, blankets and dog food, and the donated items fill some of the pews.
“I know people have this image of eastern Kentucky,” said Ms. Counts, acknowledging the painful perception among outsiders of the region as poor and backward. “But we are the first to leave. We are the first to ask, ‘How can we help?’”
But now an onslaught of disaster tested that spirit of support in profound ways.
It’s hard to tie a single weather event to climate change, but the floods and tornadoes have highlighted Kentucky’s vulnerabilities. For some, it also underscores the failures to prepare, as experts warn of heavier rainfall, flash floods that are getting shorter but more powerful in magnitude, and weather patterns that are generally getting more erratic.
“Let’s be aware that this is a new standard of incredibly catastrophic events that will affect our most vulnerable communities.,Said Alex Gibson, the executive director of Appalshop, the arts and education center in Whitesburg, Kentucky, comparing the litany of flood disasters in eastern Kentucky to the devastation facing poor island nations around the world in the era of climate change.
In the vast swathes of the state now battling the aftermath of floods and tornadoes, Mr Bailey said, infrastructure was already inadequate and communities impoverished. “We have people living on the edge,” he said.
“So much of the wealth has been won,” he said. “In a topography that has literally been stripped of trees and mountain slopes, floods in particular become more likely, riskier, more dangerous — that’s what we’re seeing.”
And as much as communities would like to rely on each other to recover from the devastation, it would be difficult to raise the necessary resources on their own.
“The tension has been enormous,” Judge Mosley, who is also an officer in the Kentucky Association of Counties, said of the widespread effects of major disasters.
“Without outside support, this would be unsurvivable,” he said. “The federal government’s resources and our faith in God is the only thing that will get us through this.”
Shawn Hubler reporting contributed.