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Disaster after Disaster, Kentucky Rebounds

By: William Liao

When the small town of Bremen, in the western part of the state, was destroyed by a violent tornado late last year, Hindman, a community in eastern Kentucky, helped with the cleanup efforts.

Hindman is located in the impoverished region of Appalachia, one of the hardest-hit areas in recent flooding which left at least 37 people dead. So when the mayor of Bremen heard the news, he immediately began organizing trips across the state to deliver supplies and other aid to the town which had so selflessly helped them a few months ago, even as his own community was still recovering from the effects of the tornado.

“I said, ‘You were here in December and helped us,’” Allen Miller, Bremen’s mayor, recalled of a conversation between him and his equivalent in Hindman. “‘Now it’s time for me to return the favor.’”

Kentucky’s people possess a unique generosity, shaped by a history in which hardships were overcome with the support of one another. The recent cycle of disasters, which was particularly brutal, was no different.

The tornadoes and flooding are just a few examples of the disasters Kentucky has faced in recent months. Last year, a powerful ice storm cut off power to 150,000 people in the eastern part of the state, and in July of the same year, flash flooding left many stranded in their homes.

“I wish I could tell you why we keep getting hit here in Kentucky,” Gov. Andy Beshear said in a briefing in which he emphasized the increasing anguish the state is facing. “I wish I could tell you why areas where people may not have much continue to get hit and lose everything. I can’t give you the why, but I know what we do in response to it. And the answer is everything we can.”

The devastation was mainly concentrated in five counties in eastern Kentucky, where homes have been swept off their foundations and bridges have collapsed, hindering access to some remote communities. Those homes which still remain often lack electricity, and more than 1,400 people have had to be rescued by volunteers and the National Guard, who often have to reach stranded residents by boat or helicopter.

“I’ve seen ditches formed where there weren’t ditches because of the rushing water,” Dan Mosley, Harlan County’s judge-executive, said. Even though many neighboring areas suffered heavy damage from the flooding, his county was thankfully spared from any significant destruction.

Nearby Knott and Letcher Counties weren’t so lucky. “The pure catastrophic loss is hard to put into words,” Mr. Mosley, who traveled with workers from his county’s Transportation Department to clear muck and debris from roads using trucks outfitted with snow plows, said. “I’ve just never seen anything like this in my career or even my life.”

In Knott County, fourteen people had been reported dead, including four children. In nearby Breathitt County, four people were confirmed to have died and around a dozen people remained missing, and much of the sparsely-populated county remained underwater.

In Hazard, a nearby town of just 5,200 inhabitants in Perry County, twenty-nine people and four dogs, some of whom had arrived covered in mud, sheltered in the First Presbyterian Church. Worshippers and other town residents occasionally dropped off supplies to the ones inside, most of who had lost their homes in a mudslide.

For many of these areas, the recent floods are especially painful given the fact that they had barely recovered from the last one.

“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, Breathitt County’s coroner. “Now it’s happened all over again, worse this time. Everybody’s lost everything, twice.”

Furthermore, natural disasters are harder on poorer regions, where there has never been much economic prosperity. Many residents acknowledge that there is a painful stereotype about eastern Kentucky as a less well-off region.

“I know people have this image of Eastern Kentucky,” Tracy Counts, a Red Cross worker at the church in Hazard, said, referring to the perception of the region as poor and backwards.

“But we are the first ones to step up. We are the first ones to ask, ‘How can we help?’”

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