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Months After Flooding, Eastern Kentucky Residents Still Face Financial Hardships, More Rain

Corinne Boyer
A flash flood hit Blaines Branch Road in Lee County in early July.

In a private room in Jackson’s main pizza joint, the people are starting to come in. What do they have in common?  They were all flooded out in March - and most of them are still rebuilding their lives.

Erica lost everything in the flood. She’s also still paying off medical debt from cleaning up floodwater.

“When we went in to clean it after the water went down. I mean, we were all sick,” she said.

51-year-old Margaret Campbell and her family, are still homeless, camped out in the yard.

“We've got a 30 foot camper and there’s four of us. And it's hard,” Campbell said.

Campbell was helped by the Red Cross, but three weeks in a motel and $300 only got her so far. She cares for her autistic granddaughter, and five-year-old grandson. 

“And he wants to go to his room, there’s a ton of toys. He can't get them because they’ve been in that flood. And I don't want him to have them,” she said.

Patsy Clair gathered everyone here today to talk about what they’ve been through.

“I'll call you and ask you what do you have? What do you still need?”

Clair is disbursing the money she raised through her organization, Breathitt County Hunger Alliance. She’s trying to connect people with resources and provide them emotional support.

Credit Katie Myers / WMMT
Patsy Clair is the founder of Breathitt County Hunger Alliance.

“It's a grief process, you know, you didn't lose anything, you didn't lose a person but you lost, you, you start, you lost your sense of identity.because it’s part of your identity, and stuff,” Clair said.

Many of those Clair has helped, also applied for FEMA aid. However, many flood victims say the process was difficult and didn’t lead to much help. Erica, a young mother, applied for FEMA aid after losing her trailer on Quicksand Road.

“They said they didn't get it, or they needed something different,” she said. “I would get aggravated because I hadn't heard from them.”

Credit Katie Myers / WMMT
Breathitt County Hunger Alliance.

Erica had some trouble because much of her paperwork got waterlogged. Others had similar issues or didn’t even know aid was available. In Owsley County, a librarian named Lesa Marcum is helping anyone who needs to apply for FEMA aid.

“My job is from 9-5, but if I have somebody that comes in and says Lesa I can’t get there until 8, I will stay. Because we are trying to get them back in their home,” Marcum said. “And I’ve seen firsthand the look on their faces..just you can’t describe it. It’s terrible.”

Marcum has assisted as many as 50 people and says a total of 100 people in Owsley county were impacted by the flood. About 35% of Owsley County residents live in poverty. Owsley County Judge Executive Cale Turner said that’s why federal assistance is critical for many.

“Sometimes a person, even if they’re renting, if they lose all their personal, if they are not able to get funding back through FEMA, it’s really going to set them back because you know the poorer we are, the harder it is to come back from something like this,” he said.

Even for those who did receive aid, there are strings attached. Erica said many applicants are pointed toward a Small Business Administration loan that scares a lot of people off.

“At first I did, before I could ever get anything with FEMA, I had to apply for the loan. And I was like, listen, I know I’ve lost everything but I'm already in the hole. Why do I need a loan?”

Still, Erica feels lucky compared to many. She received a small loan, not enough to cover everything, but enough to help her find her new place.  But it’s still on Quicksand Road, which she worries may flood again.

Credit Katie Myers / WMMT
Cleanup in eastern Kentucky after floods hit the region in March.

“I mean, you can only hope that you'll be able to get help again. But I guess in a way, it's kind of like a fear because, like myself, I'm still in the same trailer park,” she said.  

Despite inadequate resources and fears of the next flood, Erica, Margaret and other victims of the flood have little choice but to keep trying to restore what the rising waters destroy.

“I'm still cleaning. I still can't get that line on the bottom of the wall. I can't get it off,” Erica said.

Campbell said, “I scrubbed and scrubbed with ammonia and it would not come off.”

Eastern Kentucky flooding recovery part two.

The clock is running out for residents of eastern Kentucky affected by flooding earlier this year to apply for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance. July 23 is the deadline. As the region recovers, efforts have been disrupted by relentless summer rains.

In early March, water began spilling out of the Kentucky river and filling the streets of downtown Beattyville. Debbie Dunaway said she and her husband did what they could to save their business, Beattyville Florist.

“We come down, we started moving everything up. Tables on top of tables. Stuff in the front windows piling it up. We had a platform back here and we piled it up with stuff,” Dunaway said.

Credit Corinne Boyer / WEKU
Debbie Dunaway's business, Beattyville Florist, was flooded in early March.

Within an hour of that trip, Dunaway said water flowed in through the front and back doors. It rose to about three and a half feet inside the Dunaways’ building. As waters receded, it took three and a half weeks to clean up and reopen. Dunaway said they worked around the clock because they had no income coming in.

“May is always my busiest month so we had to get back to work for May. It was pretty good,” she said. “Of course, you know, it’s took out a lot of business here in town because so many places have not opened back up.”

On a hot summer day in July, clouds roll in and out over downtown Beattyville. On Mainstreet, a sign reading “temporary relocation” sits in the window of a doctor’s office. Although some businesses have reopened, others haven’t and may not reopen downtown.

Credit Corinne Boyer / WEKU
A mobile home neighborhood that sits close to the Kentucky River in Beattyville was damaged by flooding.

Recovery efforts in Beattyville and Lee County have been hindered by more rain. Flash floods  have wiped out some emergency road repairs. Assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is available, but the deadline is July 23. Individual assistance awards vary but in 2020 the maximum amount a person could receive was $33,000.

Lee County Emergency Management Director Jon Allen said nearly five months after the flood, people who’ve lost their homes have been placed elsewhere.

“At this point, unless there's somebody that just I'm not thinking about, they have all been placed somewhere, yes. We've all got them back into a shelter somewhere or another,” Allen said.

Renters and homeowners who suffered damage from the flood may apply for individual assistance from FEMA.  Allen said he doesn’t know why but some people won’t apply.

“I've had had folks that have come in my office that I know should apply, but they're prideful. And they don't want to take assistance, they don't feel like they should have to rely on the government to help them,” he said.

Credit Corinne Boyer / WEKU
The Southfork of the Kentucky River runs through Owsley County

In neighboring Owsley County, Judge Executive Cale Turner said flood victims need that assistance. And said anyone who thinks it’s a handout must not have been flooded. 

“That’s just like a home burning. To help somebody that’s had their home burned is that a handout? No. Some folks income is a lot more limited than other people,” Turner said.

Allen said ongoing flash floods are causing even more damage--putting a strain on the small county’s budget. The night before, a flash flood tossed a culvert down a creek on Blaines Branch Road.

Credit Corinne Boyer / WEKU
A road crew repairs a driveway on Blaines Branch Road in Lee County.

“So this house that we’re going to come up to on the right, this is … where the culvert was at,” Allen said.

The home’s driveway had been washed out leaving the residents stranded until the culvert and driveway can be replaced.

Two counties over in Breathitt County, Yolanda Goff doesn’t think things will ever be back to the way they were. She once owned a trailer that fit both of her teenage sons. Now, they all sleep in one room in a neighbor’s house.

“My home was totaled and the home that I had — I can't buy that back for what I got because everything has gone up, when they want $70,000 for a single wide mobile home,” Goff said. “And the prices, cost of wood, the cost of supplies have all went up because of this disaster.”

Another Breathitt county resident, Patsy Clair, has been helping flood victims. She runs Breathitt County Hunger Alliance. When the inevitable question is raised about relocating, Clair pointed out that people still live in other places frequented by disaster.  

“We own this land. This is our land. This is what you know, this is what they worked and they paid for it. So this is home,” Clair said. “Why don't the people leave the ocean side when they get hurricanes, why are people living in Tornado Alley? Why do they continue to live there?”

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