Deadly Disasters Submerge Kentucky in Devastation
By: Jovia Zhang
Kentucky has been hit hard with flood after flood this week, the deadly water draining the state for days on end. Firefighters and National Guard crews have been attached to eastern Kentucky, rescuing stranded people by the hundreds.
In addition to the diligent and caring rescue workers, the tiny community of Bremen, Ky., nearly 300 miles away, also lent a helping hand. Back in December of last year, Bremen was torn apart by one of the worst tornadoes Kentucky had ever seen. A little town in eastern Kentucky came to Bremen’s rescue and helped with the cleanup. That town, Hindman, was one of the many towns that suffered greatly from this week’s floods. So, Mayor Allen Miller of Bremen immediately rushed to help, even as his own community was still recovering.
“I said, ‘You were here in December and helped us,’” Mayor Miller told the mayor of Hindman in a phone call, according to the New York Times. “‘Now it’s time for me to return the favor.’”
Officials and residents have helped each other pull through some of Kentucky’s worst disasters, often relying on one another’s generosity.
These close bonds among communities remind us of the natural disasters that have taken a deadly toll on the state, especially during the last few months. On Saturday, officials reported that at least 25 people had been killed in the floods (that number changed to 26 by Sunday morning), but it could take weeks for the human toll and the extent of the physical damage to become clear.
“I wish I could tell you why we keep getting hit here in Kentucky,” Governor Andy Beshear said during a briefing where he discussed the rising death toll from the various 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 carved a nearly 200-mile path of destruction and killed 80 people.”
“I wish I could tell you why areas where people may not have much continue to get hit and lose everything,” the governor continued. “I can’t give you the why, but I know what we do in response to it. And the answer is everything we can.”
As Governor Beshear has pointed out, these disasters – especially the floods and tornadoes – would be devastating for any community. But they have been ruthless to the rural areas here, damaging the already-vulnerable areas of Kentucky even further.
“These places were not thriving before,” said Jason Bailey, the executive director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, a nonpartisan think tank, noting the erosion of the coal industry and loss of manufacturing jobs. “To even get back to where they were is a long road.”
The image of reality that the floods have left Kentucky with is truly devastating. On the eastern edge of the state, in Knott County, at least 14 people, four of them children, died, according to officials. Over 1,400 people have been rescued by boats and helicopters, while thousands continue without electricity.
Here, homes have been ripped from their foundations, and bridges have collapsed and washed out, leaving some remote communities inaccessible. “I’ve seen ditches formed where there weren’t ditches because of the rushing water,” said Dan Mosley, the judge-executive for Harlan County, according to the New York Times.
His community was one of the lucky ones that experienced minor flooding. While helping the neighboring communities clean up, he said the worst destruction he saw was in Knott and Letcher Counties.
“The pure catastrophic loss is hard to put into words,” he said. “I’ve just never seen anything like this in my career or even my life.”
The chaos doesn’t end here. In Breathitt County, at least four deaths had been confirmed, almost a dozen people were missing and the county was still pretty much underwater. Homes, also underwater, remain unreachable as the community struggles to get back on its feet, especially after the last flood.
“We had another flood, a record flood, not 12 months ago, 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, worse this time. Everybody’s lost everything, twice.”
Over in Hazard, a city in Perry County, 24 adults, five children and four dogs have taken shelter at the First Presbyterian Church. Their homes had either been flooded or demolished in a mudslide. Tracy Counts, a Red Cross worker at the church, said that some evacuees had arrived soaking wet or caked in mud. As there was no running water, all she could offer were baby wipes.
“It’s making 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 the same boat.”
Unfortunately, some aren’t as lucky or as privileged as others. Take 48-year-old Melissa Hensley Powell, who was brought to the church after being rescued from her home. She and her boyfriend had pulled her paralyzed brother out of their house before laying him on a mattress and using umbrellas and garbage bags to keep him dry. It was two days after her rescue when the reality of the situation finally set in. She said that she was still in “that adrenaline rush,” but the reality and gravity of all she had gone through was starting to set in.
“I know people have this image of Eastern Kentucky,” Ms. Counts said, acknowledging the painful perception among outsiders of the region as poor and backward, according to the New York Times. “But we are the first ones to step up. We are the first ones to ask, ‘How can we help?’”