As winter looms, some flooded eastern Kentuckians struggle to find housing
Laverne Fields and her family are camping by the side of the road in Millstone, Kentucky. It’s been a month and a half since her trailer washed into the creek.
“FEMA’s little bit slow on helping us,” Fields said.
Her family has had to rely on their own resourcefulness and neighbors to get by. In the early days, they were trapped in the holler by fallen trees, and community members with off-road vehicles helped them clear the way. Over a few weeks, they cobbled together a collection of tarps, tents, and campers like the one Fields lives in. She shares it with her husband and a young boy she’s temporarily caring for, Bryson.
But after that initial burst of adrenaline came a long, anxious pause for the family. The trailer is still in the creek, sitting like a box of toys dropped by a child, its contents spilling onto the ground. Now the air is dusty. There’s little shade outside, and no relief in her camper.
“It gets really hot in there,” Fields said. “Me and the baby has breathing problems.”
She’s too busy to appeal with FEMA right now. Fields lives with nine people: her brother, her cousins, her niece, some kids from other families she’s taking care of. There’s no electricity or running water in the camper.
“We bathe morning and night with wet wipes,” Fields said.
More than a month after record flooding in eastern Kentucky, it’s difficult to quantify how many people are still without permanent, safe shelters. But visiting the remote hollers and communities around the region, the situation becomes obvious: many are caught in limbo waiting for a solution, some making do with mold, mud and stink in their living quarters. Others are camping.
More than 13,000 people have applied for FEMA aid. State and federal officials have promised to get people into temporary housing while they search for long-term solutions. But with winter on the way, and ongoing struggles accessing benefits, many are wondering if promises will be fulfilled in time — and when, given the scale of destruction, they will be able to replace temporary setups with something more permanent.
Trying to find fixes before winter
Gov. Andy Beshear says the state is sheltering 300 people in 100 travel trailers across seven state parks. But not everyone qualifies.
Kayla Morton, whose rented trailer was destroyed in Whitesburg, is living in Carr Creek State Park for now with her husband and two young sons. She says the state denied her request for a trailer, but she was eventually able to get one on her own. They had previously tried staying at a local motel, but at $75 per night, the stay quickly overextended their budget.
“We didn’t have anywhere to stay and there was nowhere to rent, because there’s so many homes that are lost,” Morton said, as her three-year-old, Israel, tugged at her sleeve. “This was really our only option.”
They expect to be here through the winter, if not longer.
“We’re trying to stay positive,” Morton said, unwrapping a candy bar for Israel.
Things could be worse. Morton’s grateful she’s not in a tent, and she feels she can be of some use in the campground. She used to run a nonprofit focused on delivering birthday gifts to children in need, so she’s passed the time organizing activities for the kids in the park. As donations by church groups and concerned neighbors have threatened to overwhelm the park’s capacity to store them, Morton has worked with the park manager to sort and distribute, and put out calls for specific needs.
But as autumn creeps closer, hot days have been followed by chilly nights. The campground is not equipped for the cold.
“There’s families here that have five and six kids living in a camper,” Morton said, adding that no one’s quite sure how kids will get to school. “These kids are going to be stuck in here in the wintertime.”
In between checking in on campground residents, park manager Devon Caudill makes calls in his office, coordinating with volunteer groups and government agencies. He’s doing his best to provide for the temporary community that’s sprung up, but the work is daunting.
“We’re planning for a long term up to six, seven months, maybe more,” Caudill said. “We usually shut our campground down in the wintertime, due to the weather. And now we’re gonna have to try to get some of this stuff winterized to keep it open.”
Caudill says FEMA should be coming around to winterize trailers. But he doesn’t know when. At least thirty families are living in the campground.
“This has got me stressed to the max,” Caudill said.
Policy Hurdles for Housing
During a recent press conference, Gov. Beshear said the region is moving to a “stabilization” phase after the flood. Congregate shelters are closing, and some Kentuckians who have applied for housing assistance are now moving into official FEMA trailers, for stays of up to eighteen months. The state legislature passed a $213 million relief bill, but it didn’t include money for long-term housing fixes.
State Sen. Brandon Smith, a Republican from Hazard, proposed a $50 million allotment for long-term housing that ultimately didn’t make the final cut.
“I feel compelled to do this, because if we don’t, we’re going to have the largest out-migration in the history of Appalachia,” Smith said on the Senate floor. “They deserve to have somebody tell them that we can come up with a program that incentivizes them to stay here.”
State Rep. Angie Hatton, a Democrat from Whitesburg, agreed that housing will be a challenge for many of her constituents, who live in some of the areas hardest hit by the flood.
“Eastern Kentucky, like a lot of other places, had a shortage of affordable housing anyway,” Hatton said over the phone. “But then this flood made that so much worse.”
The relief bill includes funding for local municipalities and governments to rebuild and provide temporary housing after the flood. Leaders of the Republican-led legislature say the effort amounts to a temporary relief package, and they will consider further aid when they return for the regular lawmaking session in January. Until then, Hatton said she hopes that trailers and similar arrangements will keep a roof over peoples’ heads.
Scott McReynolds, the director of the Housing Development Alliance in Hazard, argues housing solutions can’t wait until winter.
“We need to be thinking today about where we’re going to be building houses in the spring,” he said. “We can’t expect people to live in trailers, or these campers. Long term, we’ve got to start now planning where we can build houses.”
McReynolds fears that it’s going to take a long time to get everyone safely between four sturdy walls and under a roof. Many of the submerged and damaged homes in the region were passed down through complex and generational forms of ownership, with deeds often difficult to locate, people renting from cousins and siblings and parents and uncles, complicating applications for assistance. People whose houses are not recoverable may have to find a way to pay for a rental in their budget.
According to reports by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, the state of Kentucky was short about 79,000 rentals, even before the flood, and renters in eastern Kentucky are severely cost-burdened.
Chris Doll also works at the Housing Development Alliance, as the organization’s assistant director. He says many affordable rentals in the region were both substandard and flimsy, and often located close to water.
“A lot of those substandard things just happen to be in the same place that got flooded out,” Doll said. “And so it is that bottom rung of affordability that doesn’t exist anymore.”
Doll said people are dealing with several different versions of this housing limbo.
“Some of them are still in tents in the yard,” he said. “But then you have people whose houses were inundated with water, and yet they still remaining there, despite the fact that mold is growing…it’s a lack of options.”
McReynolds and Doll hope for longer-term policy solutions, but foresee roadblocks that come from the peculiarities of the eastern Kentucky housing market.
Many low-income people in the region lived in inherited homes, now ruined, and can’t afford to pay for fixes or rental housing. According to the 2020 U.S. Census, the national median income was $64,994. Meanwhile in Letcher County, where more than 2,000 filed FEMA claims for flood-related home and property damages, the median income is $33,181.
Doll said what the region really needs is hundreds of additional housing vouchers on the county level, and of course, ways to increase incomes. But he worries those won’t be coming anytime soon. And then there’s something else, deeply complicated — people wanting to live in or near their old homes, even if it may not be safe anymore. There are many challenges and people are emotionally fraught.
“Appalachia, in general, has a very strong tie to property,” Doll said. “People [feel] this is where we were born and raised for generations.”
Many are determined to stay
Derenia Dunbar’s parents live with her right now, but before that, they lived in an old coal camp house in Millstone, a little down the road from Fields. It’s a pretty, well-built house, but its wooden studs are now bare and stripped of a hundred years of wallpaper and flooring. Their situation isn’t as dire as many — the house still stands— but they can’t live there right now. Dunbar’s dad, James Earl Boggs, can’t be around mold. He worked all his life on a strip mine and has black lung disease.
“Dad has breathing problems, we have to make sure that is getting cleaned,” Dunbar said, as a volunteer group inspected the house.
Still, Dunbar said she doesn’t plan to move away, and neither do her parents. She grew up here. For so many more in eastern Kentucky, the house isn’t just a house, but a homeplace, a place where her family’s identity is rooted.
“We’re family here,” Dunbar said.
Back at Carr Creek, Kayla Morton’s family is committed to staying in the campground until they can find something to buy or rent. Her husband has a good job in Hazard, and that’s hard to find. They couldn’t imagine ditching it.
“Our plan is to stay here and save up to buy a house or rent something closer to Hazard,” Morton said.
And in Millstone, Laverne Fields says she plans to stay, too. She’s lived in the community for 20 years, and despite her nervousness at the continual summer rains, she says she’ll wait it out as long as she can. Fields met a church group that told her they’d buy her a new trailer, and she’s holding out for that promise to be fulfilled.
“I don’t know how accurate it is. But they told me that probably by September, they may have me in it,” she said. “…or October.”
But that’s the big question that sets off a parade of possibilities: When? When will the church group come back? Will FEMA answer the appeal? If a new house comes in, will it have electricity and central air before winter?
And all the while families like Laverne Fields’ are in limbo. Looking at what’s left of their houses, answering every phone call they get, and in between, staring at the fire in front of the RV.
For now, Fields and people like her are relying on their own ingenuity, community support and maybe federal assistance, if they can get it.
“We’ve just been struggling along, trying to survive waiting to see what’s gonna happen,” Fields said.
The Eastern Kentucky Sheltering Program is still taking applications for temporary housing through its online portal
More information about applying for housing assistance, and a list of available rentals in the region, can be found through the Kentucky Housing Corporation
APPALRED Legal Aid is offering free legal assistance to anyone dealing with housing issues after the flood.
This story is part of the “America Amplified” initiative. America Amplified is a national public media collaboration focused on community engagement reporting.
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