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After the Flood

Perpetual crisis and recovery in Eastern Kentucky
An aerial photo of flooded houses, only the roofs visible.

About three weeks after Eastern Kentucky’s disastrous July 2022 flood, I met a disabled older woman named Paula who lived in a particularly isolated part of rural Letcher County. She needed help. Her house had been destroyed by the raging floodwaters, along with most everything she owned: furniture, heirlooms, appliances, photographs. She had no electricity, running water, or Internet access. In the meantime, she’d set up a small encampment outside the wreckage of her home and was relying on her son and various good Samaritans to bring her food and water.

All she really had left to her name were questions: How was she going to get the house and debris removed? Who was going to pay for removing it? How long could she expect to be living outside of her home? And when the hell would FEMA arrive? Without Internet, nor a way of getting to the nearest disaster relief center fifteen miles away, Paula was no closer to answering these questions than she was the day after the flood. She laid it all out for me and then grinned: perhaps I, a strapping young man working with a crew of mutual aid volunteers, could take a crack at getting some answers?

I dialed a number on FEMA’s website and spent the next hour getting bounced around to various workers within the agency. Finally I cornered a particularly lethargic bureaucrat and explained to him Paula’s situation—that she was stuck physically and digitally—and could FEMA please send someone out to see her? The bureaucrat, however, informed me that that’s not what FEMA does. “We don’t send our people out to homes,” he droned for probably the hundredth time that day. “She’ll have to go to one of our disaster response centers and inquire in person.” After several rounds of me rephrasing my request—perhaps I wasn’t saying the magic combination of words?—I gave up. What was the point in arguing? Paula and I were just two people among a vast sea of others who needed help—not just in Kentucky but all over the United States. The most we could do was speculate and laugh about the absurdity of it all.

But despite our early solidarity, Paula and I eventually lost touch. I think she began to get suspicious of me—there were rumors of scammers everywhere in those days—and she stopped answering my calls. Or maybe she realized there was nothing me or my mutual aid crew could really do for her beyond gutting her home, and she wanted to spare me the embarrassment. Or perhaps someone from a different NGO or relief agency, with more natural disaster experience than me, was able to give her the help I couldn’t. The real reason didn’t matter. As long-term recovery efforts replaced the short-term in the wake the flood, which killed forty-five and left thousands more homeless across the region, neighbors were made to depend less on each other and on mutual aid initiatives, and more on a constellation of government agencies, for-profit firms, and institutions. There was money to be made from the cleanup, and contractors and consultants were lining up to get it. Recovery would soon cease being temporary and hopeful, and instead slip into a more permanent phase—a gradually dimming light at the end of a long tunnel.

An aerial photo of a red barn submerged in floodwater.
Flooding in Eastern Kentucky, July 2022. | U.S. National Guard

With the benefit of hindsight, we can identify three distinct phases of recovery. The first began on the day of the flood, July 28, and ended only a few days later. In this period, everyone—the landowners and the landless, the rich and the poor, the employed and jobless, the politically conscious and apathetic—reeled in shock.

The National Guard appeared on the scene in armored vehicles and helicopters to assert state authority relatively quickly. Counties, meanwhile, moved to sign interlocal agreements that merged state and county jurisdiction on everything from debris removal to law enforcement. Eastern Kentucky police and sheriff’s departments received backup from the state police, who helped enforce the curfews enacted across the region. The full scope of the destruction, and how much it would cost to repair, was not yet fully known.

In this first phase, volunteer groups from around the nation descended on the region to deliver and distribute supplies. Most of the groups were faith-based, and the fact that they arrived before the state relief agencies is noteworthy. There were also groups composed of local citizens and activists, such as East Kentucky Mutual Aid, of which I was a part. The volunteer groups had to respond quickly to the changing needs of flood victims—first food and water, then squeegees for removing water from homes, then money, then labor for mold mitigation and demolition. The work was exhausting, and groups like Kentucky Baptist Disaster Relief, as well as professional disaster relief groups like Team Rubicon, were able to marshal far more resources and manpower than our mutual aid group.

The drive to return to “normal” had revealed a slate of contradictions that made it impossible to move forward.

FEMA’s mobile registration centers began fanning out into affected areas on July 31 but did not get to some places for several days. We can date the beginning of the second phase of recovery to their arrival. Other federal agencies followed in their wake, like the USDA’s Rural Development Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers, both of which were on hand to preside over the tasks of debris removal, streambank restoration, and watershed management. State agencies like the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and the Division of Water also arrived to oversee various aspects of the recovery, while humanitarian donors from around the world poured money into the Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief Fund, the state’s official disaster relief fund. Finally, for-profit disaster relief companies like Ashbritt, along with a flurry of contractors and subcontractors, were brought in to assist with removing debris from the rivers and roads—for a price, of course.

The state and federal agencies operated on ecological and political prerogatives that more often than not conflicted with each other, and these contradictions grew especially acute as reconstruction got underway. It was never clear who answered to who, who would pay for this or that repair, or what some agencies even did. Everyone you talked to had a story about their own baffling encounter with either FEMA or some esoteric Kentucky agency you’d never heard of. If fear and terror marked the first phase, then chaos and confusion marked the second.

Consulting firms materialized to ameliorate this bureaucratic confusion, and to steer municipalities through the complicated waters of relief aid and private property disputes. One particular firm based out of Arkansas, ER Assist, attached itself like a barnacle to the hull of Letcher County government and became especially crucial, influencing major budgetary decisions without being subject to democratic approval. Their presentation as rational, experienced actors among the chaos of recovery all but ensured their employment.

The agencies and consultants quickly got to work quantifying the damage. What they found wasn’t good. At least a hundred bridges across thirteen Eastern Kentucky counties were destroyed. Some thirteen thousand homes were damaged, nearly eight thousand of which were declared uninhabitable by FEMA’s standards—and this didn’t include the damage to commercial buildings, for which there still doesn’t seem to be definitive data. Whole swaths of the power, water, sewer, and communications infrastructure collapsed. A week out from the flood, in the middle of sweltering August heat, nearly seven thousand people across the thirteen affected counties still did not have running water. The flood had simply ripped the water lines from the ground. “They’re sticking up like straws all over,” Letcher County executive Terry Adams told the Mountain Eagle newspaper. Meanwhile twisted metal, cars, trash, chemicals, roads, and entire homes clogged six hundred miles of streams, and black mold was spreading from houses to businesses to churches like a plague. People were not just cut off from their homes. They were cut off from entire communities and histories.

In a more affluent region, with a heavier tax base and more robust administrative capacities, these issues would not pose such an existential threat. But counties in Eastern Kentucky have been pushing hard up against their capacities for years now. The late twentieth century transition out of the coal economy and into the health care economy—a violent transition worsened by welfare “reform” and the opioid crisis—significantly altered the political prerogatives of governance here. Cash-strapped counties came to plug fiscal gaps with investments in carceral infrastructure at the expense of civic infrastructure. What’s left of the tax base comes by way of health care corporations like Appalachian Regional Healthcare, Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation, and Pikeville Medical Center, who have all rushed to take advantage of cheap real estate and an aging, low-wage workforce. In other words, the perpetual state of crisis and recovery has been a form of governance in and of itself for quite some time.

But as summer moved into fall, it briefly looked like flood recovery efforts wouldn’t be totally hampered by these pre-existing forms of crisis and recovery. After all, Kentucky Democratic governor Andy Beshear seemed committed to the region, and there was still a sense of social solidarity between and among neighbors, social classes, and politicians. But by October the cracks began to show. The first hiccup came over the issue of private bridge repair. In the wake of the flood, Letcher County had received well over one hundred applications for bridge repair, and estimated the cost of the project at around $1 million. The county, however, “[couldn’t] afford to do a million-dollar project,” according to Adams, the Letcher County executive official. In theory, FEMA and the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet would reimburse the county for the costs of such a project, but the problem lay in the chasm between estimates and reality: if the county’s repairs exceeded FEMA’s estimates, then the county would be unable to claim full reimbursement. 

The same issue came up over road repairs. “Will post-flood road work break [Letcher] county?” asked the Mountain Eagle in November. The paper went on to explain how the county government had already “burned through an entire year of state road aid money in the past two months” as it raced to repair damaged roads. Like with private bridge repairs, the county would have to front the cash and hope that FEMA’s reimbursements aligned with the actual cost. But there was an added element of urgency: winter was setting in, and the roads needed immediate attention—a bad freeze could make them highly dangerous. To make matters worse, the county’s vehicle garage had been inundated during the flood, and workers needed utility vehicles to help with road plowing and salting once the winter freezes began.

The only viable option was to take on debt and hope that FEMA and the state agencies came through later. Between August and December 2022, the county took out at least $6 million in loans to front this repair work. This was not done without hesitation; officials publicly fretted about having to scrape for matching funds for FEMA grants. When it came to streambank restoration and cleanup in early winter, for example, Adams told ER Assist that the county was “just about spent out.” ER Assist pledged to help the county track down more short-term funding to plug the gap.

Thus began a dynamic that dragged on well into the spring. The county would brace against against its capacities while it waited for slow-moving federal and state grant funding. At the recommendation of outside consulting firms like ER Assist—now firmly ensconced in governmental quarters—it would dig itself out with makeshift measures, like debt. This would in turn place the county into a new position of vulnerability to banks and sluggish federal agencies like FEMA. As a result, the county was forced to develop new methods of squeezing money out of its constituencies.

For example, look to the sanitation department and the Letcher County Jail. The sanitation department had been predictably strained by the flood response—the flood produced a lot of trash—and by February, sanitation, along with every other county department, was in the red. “Will county govt. be forced to raise taxes or add fees?” the Mountain Eagle asked, to which the county responded: yes. “We don’t want the garbage and trash back over our hills,” explained Adams, citing the debris that still remained from the flood. District Thirteen county magistrate Deb Collier agreed, saying, “We have to be able to raise some kind of money.” So the county raised garbage bills and hired a litter warden to track down delinquent customers. Meanwhile, the same logic was applied to the jail. In October the county passed a resolution to charge its prisoners $10 to visit the jail’s nurse. Although the flood wasn’t listed as the explicit reason, jailer Burt Slone admitted that the measure was to “offset the cost to the county.” In the end such cost-saving measures likely did not amount to much—they were miniscule in comparison to the massive outlays demanded by flood relief. But austerity often begins in the margins and works its way inward, squeezing constituencies for as much surplus as possible.

It’s important to note that Letcher County was not actually broke. It’s just that some of its money had already been committed to political imperatives established long before the flood. The most visible example was law enforcement. In October, in the midst of a panic about the county’s ability to fund road repairs, the county gave its sheriff’s department an additional $100,000, partially to offset the cost of two sheriff’s cruisers lost in the flood. However, as the Mountain Eagle reported, local police departments were up to their ears in police cruisers donated by law enforcement departments from around the nation. (“Local police continue sorting through donated cruisers,” reads the headline.) The story appeared around the same time that the municipalities of Whitesburg, Neon, and the county government were soliciting help to purchase utility vehicles for flood relief and garbage collection. Then in June, Whitesburg—a town of less than seventeen hundred people—gave its police department more salary funding than it gave the recently crippled water or sewer departments. The city also gave the police $80,000 for vehicle purchases and an additional $25,000 for a utility terrain vehicle. Again, this was all after Letcher County and the municipalities of Whitesburg and Neon expressed a dire need for flood relief vehicles.

Meanwhile, everywhere you looked during this second phase of recovery things were either breaking down or blowing up. Volunteers would clean out a house, spray it with mold killer, and a week later the place would burn down from flood-damaged wiring. County workers would repair water lines only for winter freezes to snap them again—which is what happened after subzero freezes in December, making it difficult to get people settled into new homes. Election workers scrambled to get three flood-ravaged polling locations back online before Letcher County’s November elections, only to get bogged down in a flood of open records requests made by right-winger online activists hellbent on revealing “who really won” the 2020 election. The drive to return to “normal” had revealed a slate of contradictions at the heart of our community and region that made it impossible to move forward.

Crisis needs recovery to preserve the status quo, and recovery needs crisis to ensure further recovery.

Nowhere was this more visible than in one extremely bizarre episode from last October. Immediately after the flood, the state had contracted the emergency management firm AshBritt to remove debris from streams. AshBritt then subcontracted the work out to local firms, and assumed that someone else would take care of the property easements that allowed local contractors to enter private property and remove the debris[*]. At the same time, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet—which was receiving guidance on ecological restoration from the Army Corps of Engineers—was being incredibly dodgy about what contractors could and could not remove from streams and properties. Some things, like physical debris, could be claimed for profitable reimbursement, while organic matter, like silt, could not. Because the subcontractors had local knowledge of the area, they knew that the silt and other organic matter would need to be removed in order to prevent future flooding. But the subcontractors also needed to get paid; they weren’t going to remove all that stuff for free. So they were in a bind.

A standoff ensued. The cash-strapped county issued conflicting messages—on one hand, it wanted all debris removed so that economic development initiatives like tourism could get moving again; on the other hand, it was well aware that any makeshift solutions to the streams would only result in more flooding further down the line. The Army Corps of Engineers signaled their hesitancy to get into legal quagmires with property owners about what did and did not constitute “debris.” The subcontractors meanwhile insisted on their right to go onto private property and remove everything they saw as a future flood risk—including not just silt, rocks, and trees but also entire homes and private bridges. And local citizens insisted that private property be respected, that they had the right to decide for themselves what constituted debris.

Tensions boiled over on October 20, when the subcontractors threw up their hands and staged a walkout. For three days, debris sat uncollected. No one knew who to blame or what had gone wrong. No one knew who to pay, or who could get paid. Clearly there had been some kind of communication breakdown, but the exact details were unclear. Some politicians, resuscitating old refrains, blamed environmentalists for caring too much about endangered “crawdads.” Others blamed FEMA for not being clear on who had jurisdiction. (When reached for comment, FEMA deferred to Kentucky Emergency Management.) The subcontractors blamed the fog of war. “Contractors tell us of as many as 12 inspectors showing up at a job site at a time,” wrote the Mountain Eagle editorial staff, “and the labyrinth of agencies supervising the work can be mind-boggling. Just when they think they’ve been given the final word on what they can and can’t clean up, they say, someone else has a different final word.”

The subcontractors ended their strike four days later—and only then “out of respect for Randy Perkins, the founder of AshBritt,” the contractor getting paid by the state. Ostensibly the subcontractors agreed to leave the silt and organic matter in place, on account of it not being reimbursable for payment. As far as the “inorganic” debris went—things like damaged bridges and homes—short-term solutions would have to be constructed as workarounds. The county therefore stepped back and, not without considerable trepidation, allowed the agencies and subcontractors to install low-water makeshift bridges around the county. This unfortunately came at a great cost. When late-winter rains hit the region in February, the makeshift bridges were wiped out, and everything flooded again. “This Friday’s flood ripped out everything,” resident Tanya Boggs told a meeting of county officials in February, after she’d just finished restoring her house from the flood in July. “My house flooded again.”

Houses submerged in floodwaters.
Flooding in Eastern Kentucky, July 2022. | U.S. National Guard

The late-winter flood of February 2023 was the decisive shift from the second phase of recovery to the third. It was a culmination of all the confusion building up over the fall, and more than anything proved that a return to “normal” was impossible. Competing interests had been cinched together in a tight, intractable web: bureaucratic demands ran up against law and order-driven fiscal constraints, which strained against the learned expertise of the subcontractors, who were themselves propelled by the profit motive inherent to disaster capitalism. At no point was the objective to solve deeper problems, or to ameliorate further suffering. Instead, the point was to “recover”: to reformulate the old world through the lens of the new, without stopping to think how things might be different.

The irony is that a previous natural disaster had seemingly resolved some of these contradictions. In late January 1957, catastrophic floods inundated multiple Appalachian states, killing fourteen people and causing millions of dollars of damage. The then-recent advent of strip mining had led to the systematic removal of trees and topsoil necessary for containing water and silt runoff, which meant eastern Kentucky was hit hardest. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent over the next sixty years to control for this fact: strip mining for coal made long-term living here untenable. Massive flood projects in places like Pikeville, Harlan, and Barbourville are testament to this. And within the ecological bounds of pre-crisis climate change, they were mostly successful—until last year.

Now, instead of planning and mitigation, municipalities like Letcher County have only one viable option: to push ahead with the FEMA buyout program, wherein homeowners within the floodplain sell their land to FEMA, and FEMA returns the land to nature. After the buyout, no one can ever live on or build on the land again. The program is simultaneously a short-term palliative and a source of long-term anxiety for municipal planners: FEMA fronts the county millions of dollars upfront for the buyouts, but by removing hundreds of acres of land from county tax rolls, the program will further deplete county tax reserves.

Attempts have been made to adjust for the long-term crisis the buyout program represents—such as Hal Rogers’s proposed federal prison in Letcher County, or Governor Andy Beshear’s “higher ground” affordable housing initiative—but each will have to contend with ecological and political challenges that even a decade ago weren’t quite so existential. The region could stand on the precipice of a glorious new future, but judging on how the recovery has gone, it looks more likely that we’re clinging to flotsam and hoping the next crisis is more forgiving.

Where one crisis begins and the other ends, however, is not so obvious. From opioids to strip mining to floods, to the collapse of the coal industry and the rise of the health care industry, the last fifty years of Eastern Kentucky history has been one extended, interlocking chain of crisis and recovery. At a certain point you realize the two need each other: that crisis needs recovery to preserve the status quo, and recovery needs crisis to ensure further recovery. These two forces work together to create a suspension of time, where horizons of change are gradually winnowed down, problems are naturalized, and legitimate confrontations with the underlying problems—and with the people who caused them—are deferred.

But hidden within this process is a profound possibility for intervention: the moment of social rupture, when Paula reached out to our mutual aid group for help. That single moment indicates a need to break with the past and its endless chain of crisis and recovery, and the hope of a different future. Our eventual falling out does not negate the fact that for a brief moment the social contract had been suspended, and the future was momentarily not cemented in stone. With that in mind, only one question remains: How will we respond next time?

[*] Correction: An earlier version of this essay incorrectly identified the consulting firm ER Assist as monitoring debris removal from streams in Eastern Kentucky.