They Never Knew The Water Could Get That High

Willa Johnson knew it was time to go when she noticed a pair of her shoes floating by the stairs.

For hours, she had listened as massive storms and relentless rains battered Whitesburg, Kentucky. A native of Appalachia, she had lived through floods before, but she’d never seen rising water overtake the road right outside her home. Now it was in her house.

Johnson rode out the storm at her parents’ place up the hill, where mudslides posed a risk but at least the water couldn’t reach. The next afternoon, when cellular service finally returned, she began to understand the havoc that the storms had unleashed.

Whitesburg, a small mountain town bisected by the trickling North Fork of the Kentucky River, was submerged beneath what the National Weather Service would ultimately deem a “1,000-year flood.” News alerts said that multiple people were killed and that death tolls would surely rise.

Johnson’s home, like many others in Whitesburg and the nearby towns of Fleming-Neon, Isom and McRoberts, was gone. And unbeknownst to her, some of Johnson’s friends and family members had begun to wonder if she was among the missing.

But it wasn’t until she found out that Appalshop — a beloved media and community center in the heart of Whitesburg — had flooded, too, that Johnson broke down.

“I’ve cried more over Appalshop than I did losing a lot of my own possessions,” Johnson, who directs the center’s renowned film program, told HuffPost.

Launched in 1969 amid President Lyndon B. Johnson’s so-called War on Poverty, Appalshop has spent a half-century reclaiming and reframing Appalachia as more than the impoverished, woebegone region that dominates the popular perception.

Originally a film workshop, it is now a full-fledged producer, collector and preservationist of Appalachian culture and art that prides itself on its ability to both celebrate and critique mountain society. Appalshop hosts a film school, a radio station, photography workshops, a theater, a literary magazine and a record label, and it is also home to numerous community development initiatives. Its work has been screened at the Sundance Film Festival, South by Southwest, the Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian Institution.

In a region where “it’s easy to feel like you’re not seen sometimes,” Johnson said, “Appalshop is a celebration of what it means to be here. It is a celebration of being able to bring people together with different belief systems and different ideologies, and still be Appalachian together. It is, at the root, this celebration of what it means to be from this region.”

“Having it underwater,” she said, “hurt.”

The founding mission of Appalshop was to educate and empower people from the mountains to tell their own stories, with the sort of complexity and nuance that mainstream narratives tend to flatten into a singular hillbilly stereotype.

Drowned beneath the swollen Kentucky River, with its repository of historic films and other artifacts at risk of total ruin, Appalshop’s iconic wooden building now had another story to tell — about how lives and livelihoods, buildings and homes are not all that’s under threat from increasingly dangerous storms brought about by the climate crisis.

So, too, are entire cultures and communities, and places like Appalshop that bind them together.

A Natural Disaster Aided ‘By The Hands Of Mankind’

Mountain towns such as Whitesburg are used to floods.

“Whenever it rains for many days, we start thinking about flooding,” said Mimi Pickering, an award-winning videographer who has worked at Appalshop since 1971. “You go out, and you’re kind of looking at the river to see where it is.”

But July’s disaster was unprecedented and unfathomable. Two days of steady rain had already soaked the ground when a massive storm system rolled through on the night of July 27. Over the next 48 hours, it dumped between 8.5 and 10 inches of rain onto the region, overwhelming everything below.

The North Fork of the Kentucky River is more of a creek on most days, its depths measurable in inches. When it finally crested amid the floods, the river was up more than 20 feet — at least 6 feet higher than its previous record level.

The disaster killed 39 people, making it likely the deadliest flood in Kentucky’s history.

“What happened here is just totally off of the scale of what anybody imagined was possible,” said Marley Green, Appalshop’s director of community development. “Even if you were here in 1957 and experienced the last record flood, this is 50% bigger than that.”

Appalshop’s radio studio sits in ruins after disastrous flooding. WMMT, a public station that calls it home, has been off the air for weeks.

The river swamped Whitesburg and submerged Appalshop, which sits far enough above the watercourse that it is largely out of normal flood plains. The water inundated its historic film archive and filled its radio studio and theater, along with the rest of its first floor, with mud. Johnson learned about the devastation from pictures shared online by local photographers — and had the same thought as seemingly everyone else in the area.

“We never knew the water could get that high,” she said.

The floods set off a frantic scramble to save Appalshop’s collection of artifacts, which had been strewn about the building. Working in 10- and 12-hour shifts, employees and volunteers rushed to dry and preserve films to protect them from mold, mildew and ruin.

Its radio studio was destroyed; WMMT, a public station that broadcasts everything from traditional mountain folk music to hip-hop programs from inside Appalshop, has been off the air for weeks. The floods drowned all but the top two rows of its theater under 6 feet of water. Computers housed inside its film institute were completely lost.

It will take months to assess what can be saved and what is gone forever.

Even amid the struggle to save the archive and other irreplaceable totems of Appalachian history and art, Appalshop focused on its role as a fulcrum of the community. It began directing local residents to sources of assistance, and those who wanted to help the recovery gave to mutual aid funds and other places accepting donations of vital supplies such as food, water and money.

In a region familiar with environmental disasters, some of Appalshop’s most heralded work has examined and explained the factors that make them so catastrophic. In February, it hosted an event marking the 50th anniversary of the Buffalo Creek disaster, when the collapse of a coal slurry impoundment led to the flooding of Logan County, West Virginia, killing 125 people and leaving 4,000 homeless.

Pittston Coal, which owned the dam, argued that the disaster was an “act of God” and that it bore no responsibility.

But “Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man,” an award-winning documentary that Pickering filmed and produced in the 1970s, argued that it was no such thing. The film, which is now part of the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, made the case that the company’s neglect, and that of a federal inspector who had declared the dam adequate just four days prior to its collapse, were ultimately responsible for the tragedy.

The film highlighted both “the human cost when corporations run rampant without any accountability” and the lessons that “are still relevant today,” Appalshop said.

It was unwittingly prescient, and now Appalshop is seeking to outline the human-made circumstances that exacerbated this year’s disaster.

The storms may have been natural, Appalshop Executive Director Alex Gibson wrote in the Courier Journal the week after the floods, but they were “aided pretty strongly by the hands of mankind” — specifically, by the coal companies and other extractive industries that altered both the Appalachian landscape and the global climate, leaving communities like Whitesburg even more vulnerable to increasingly frequent disasters.

“Why do we live on the creek banks? Because we can’t buy the land that’s up higher and safer. It’s not for sale. We don’t know who owns it. It’s people up in New York sitting in offices who probably don’t even remember they own it.”

– Willa Johnson, director of Appalshop’s film program

The coal industry, which at its peak employed more than 35,000 people in eastern Kentucky, is mostly gone now; at the end of 2021, the state’s eastern coalfields accounted for fewer than 3,000 jobs. But coal continues to shape nearly all aspects of life in places like Letcher County — everything from where people live to how water flows through the area.

As rains beat down on the region in late July, abandoned strip mines, altered streams and cleared mountain forests acted as natural accelerants for the floods.

“If it wasn’t for thousands of acres in this watershed being strip mines, and poorly reclaimed, a lot more of this water would have gotten slowed down before it hit the creeks,” Green said. “It wouldn’t have been as bad.”

The scraps of timber and mining operations, including logs cleared to make way for power lines and discarded into mountain hollers and creek beds, blocked the flow of water and exacerbated the destruction. Population loss and sharp declines in coal-related tax receipts, meanwhile, have prevented local governments from performing necessary infrastructure upgrades, leaving behind roads and bridges that crumpled beneath the weight of the water.

“Some of the roads,” said Appalshop Communications Director Meredith Scalos, “look like crushed up graham crackers now.”

Towns like Whitesburg, Fleming-Neon and Hindman, all of which flooded last month, sprung up because they were near mining operations. But rarely did local residents actually have ownership of the lands they lived on.

In the 1960s, roughly 86% of coalfield land in eastern Kentucky was owned by corporations based outside the mountains, one study found. Miners, their families and other residents built homes in the only places they could afford. Often, these were close to rivers or deep in mountain hollers, on lands the coal companies didn’t want — or didn’t succeed in taking.

Not much has changed. In the late 1990s, Wall Street banks and hedge funds snapped up land in eastern Kentucky, betting that economic growth in China and other parts of the world would boost demand for coal and help the industry rebound.

They were wrong, but today, many still control those holdings. In Knott County, which flooded in July, corporations headquartered outside Appalachia still owned a quarter of the land in 2, the Lexington Herald Leader reported. One group of faraway owners that cared about nothing more than the resources it could extract merely replaced another. Even today, homes are passed down through generations; otherwise, land ownership is often an unattainable dream.

“Why do we live on the creek banks? Because we can’t buy the land that’s up higher and safer,” Johnson said. “It’s not for sale. We don’t know who owns it. It’s people up in New York sitting in offices who probably don’t even remember they own it.”

‘We Need Action’

Amid an outpouring of sympathy and compassion after the flooding last month, some Appalachians noticed another response: suggestions that their region’s overwhelming support for Republican climate skeptics, such as former President Donald Trump and Kentucky Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, meant they’d done this to themselves.

Eastern Kentucky, however, is brimming with organizations and initiatives hoping to bring about what climate activists call a “just transition” — reorienting local communities and their economies toward sustainability and resiliency while also promoting quality jobs, improved livelihoods and, in places like Appalachia, more local ownership and control.

Among them is the Letcher County Culture Hub, a coalition of nearly two dozen partner organizations, including Appalshop, that promotes local ownership of the area’s resources and culture. In 2019, it secured $500,000 in investments to help Appalshop and three other community centers convert to solar energy — one of the largest solar projects ever financed in Appalachia, according to the Brookings Institution.

The switch was a necessity from a financial standpoint. Energy costs have spiked across Appalachia, which sees the highest monthly prices in Kentucky. But the groups also thought that investing in solar might set an example in communities that are often skeptical of such projects, or worried that installing solar panels might offend neighbors still deeply connected to the coal industry and its legacy.

“We wanted it to be something that was not just serving our needs, but helping people to understand that this is doable,” said Green, who worked on Appalshop’s solar program. “If you want to talk to somebody about it, we’ve done it and we can talk to you about it. We’ve had thousands of conversations with local people over the last three years.”

Curiosity is a major driver of solar transition in the area, said Ariel Fugate, a spokesperson for a community development group known as the Mountain Association. When residents see a neighbor, local business or community organization make the switch, they often start exploring whether they can too.

Through its loan programs, the Mountain Association last year helped finance 25 projects to retrofit homes and businesses with cleaner energy sources, on top of an additional 13 solar transitions.

Appalshop's theater, where flooding submerged all but the top two rows of seats under at least 6 feet of water.
Appalshop’s theater, where flooding submerged all but the top two rows of seats under at least 6 feet of water.

But these groups also know they cannot overhaul the entire region on their own. Private charity, local investment and meager government grants and programs aren’t sufficient in the face of increasingly devastating climate disasters, particularly in places impoverished by the collapse of industries that monopolized them in the past.

“We need action at every level,” Pickering said. “We need lots and lots of action from the federal government.”

State and federal leaders have pledged to assist rebuilding efforts in the wake of the July floods. “As long as it takes,” President Joe Biden said during a visit to eastern Kentucky in early August, “we’re going to be here.”

But the federal government’s initial response has been frustratingly bureaucratic. Kentucky lawmakers from both parties, including Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, have slammed the Federal Emergency Management Agency for denying too many claims for federal assistance funds.

Even when approved, assistance can be modest. State Sen. Brandon Smith, a Republican, has said that FEMA had approved a meager $8,000 grant to one family in his district.

“To me, that means the federal government has decided the total value of this families’ livelihood, literally everything they have to their name, is only worth $8,000,” Smith said in a news release, according to the Lexington Herald Leader.

FEMA has just made changes to its assistance process, Beshear said at a news conference Monday. But the scale of the disaster has also raised questions about the future that are more existential in nature.

Fewer than 1% of households at the epicenter of July’s storms had flood insurance. In one of the country’s poorest regions, the floods will rob many of homes, livelihoods and money, all of which were in short supply before the disaster.

Neither the government nor anyone else seems capable of or interested in replacing these at a scale that matches the recent destruction — to say nothing of the riches these communities once produced, primarily for other people. At current market prices, the 600 million tons of coal mined in Letcher County alone since 1900 would be worth somewhere between $31 billion and $99 billion, according to calculations by The Mountain Eagle, a local newspaper in Whitesburg.

“I suspect that this newest iteration of rebuilding will become, like the old one, a kind of farce,” wrote Tarence Ray, who lives in Whitesburg and co-hosts the “Trillbilly Worker’s Party” podcast, in a recent piece for The Baffler. “Why would anyone want to rebuild the same society that let this happen in the first place?”

Last year, Biden signed an infrastructure law that included funding for mountain reclamation projects. Less than two weeks after the floods, Congress passed the largest climate bill in U.S. history.

But the money those laws allocated and the initiatives they created will take time to reach the mountains and everywhere else. And they may not be ambitious enough or arrive in time to help stave off the next disaster, especially if 1,000-year floods become a generational phenomenon.

“We’ve had more frequent, bigger floods in Whitesburg in the last few years,” Green said. “We’re probably going to see another one of these soon. It’s impossible to know if it’s going to happen again next year, or is it going to be five years, going to be 10 years before we experience this. But it won’t be 50 years. I feel 100% confident about that.”

‘i Don’t Want To Be On The Creek Bank Anymore’

A few days after the floods, Johnson drove through Fleming-Neon, another erstwhile coal community, on her way to McRoberts, where she grew up. Both had been devastated, and on the ride back home, Johnson’s 5-year-old son told her he didn’t want to visit Fleming-Neon anymore.

“They need so much help, and I’m just a little kid,” she recalled him saying.

In its immediate aftermath, this tragedy has fostered a sense of solidarity among those who’ve experienced similar disasters in other communities. Emergency workers from western Kentucky, which was battered by a record outbreak of tornadoes in December, drove hundreds of miles to aid relief efforts.

One afternoon, as Appalshop employees were putting in another shift to recover film from its archive, a man from West Virginia pulled into the parking lot in a flatbed truck stocked with jugs of water. According to Pickering, he said his town had flooded last year, and he knew that clean water would be in short supply.

“If I have to fight a climate crisis battle, these are the people I want to fight it with,” Johnson told HuffPost.

But repairing a shredded sense of community will be at least as difficult as rebuilding the physical community.

It will take months for Appalshop to determine what can be saved and what is gone forever — as well as whether it can or wants to rebuild along the Kentucky River.
It will take months for Appalshop to determine what can be saved and what is gone forever — as well as whether it can or wants to rebuild along the Kentucky River.

After the Buffalo Creek flood in 1972, psychiatric examinations found that 93% of local residents suffered from emotional trauma. Even decades later, research suggested that those who had lived through the disaster in childhood experienced post-traumatic stress disorder at disproportionately high rates — findings that contributed to the conceptualization of PTSD as a lasting affliction.

One study indicated that survivors suffered from “a nameless feeling that something had gone grotesquely awry in the order of things, that their minds and spirits had been bruised beyond repair, that they would never again be able to find coherence, that the world as they knew it had come to an end.”

For years, southeastern Kentuckians have been fleeing the region in droves. The population of Letcher County fell 12% over the past decade, making it one of eight Kentucky counties that suffered double-digit declines, according to recent census figures. All of them were in Appalachia.

For many, this latest disaster will be all they can take. And whether for financial, emotional or other reasons, they will leave the mountains for good.

Appalshop plans to remain. Thanks to substantial flood insurance, federal grant money and donations, it shouldn’t have much problem rebuilding, Green said. But it won’t be exempt from the trauma or the changes that have been forced upon Whitesburg.

Johnson had gone through the film school at Appalshop. She had returned home to Letcher County to work there. Before the floods, she often took her son to work with her. Now, though, she worries that Appalshop’s historic building — long a place that symbolized her community and “what it means to be here” — will serve as a reminder of the loss that eastern Kentucky suffered last month, and the eternal fear that will grip the area each time it rains.

“It will grow back; there’s no doubt there. But like, where do we want that back to be? What do we want that to look like? And how much can we expose ourselves to trauma again?” she asked. “The building where I learned media and where I taught media to other young people will never be the same.”

“I love that building more than anything. It’s a second home to me,” Johnson said, fighting back tears. “But I don’t want to be on the creek bank anymore. I’m scared of it.”

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