Kentucky floodwaters receded six months ago. For many, the crisis … – The Washington Post

HAZARD, Ky. — Gerry Roll lets out a sigh when she thinks about the endless pleas that have poured into her inbox over the past six months.
“I am desperately seeking help,” one man wrote this winter, saying the floods that devastated Eastern Kentucky in late July had knocked out his heating system. “Are there any resources that can help me out with that? I am cold and freezing at times.”
“Myself and my daughter both lost our homes. … We would be so grateful for any assistance,” wrote another woman, explaining that there was no money to rebuild.
Every extreme weather disaster leaves a lasting mark, often displacing people in its path. But the biblical floods in Eastern Kentucky have highlighted a deepening reality that many communities face as climate change fuels catastrophes of greater intensity and frequency: a housing crisis that persists long after the immediate disaster has faded.
“I just don’t think people can grasp what a huge issue housing is,” says Roll, the chief executive of the nonprofit Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky. “People need housing now; they need a place to live now. They need to know there’s a light at the end of this tunnel.”
For many, that light has been hard to find.
Mile after mile, county after county, the hills and hollers of Eastern Kentucky are littered with reminders of the floods that unleashed sudden and staggering suffering, killing more than 40 people and leaving hundreds of families homeless.
Spray-painted orange X’s left by search teams are still visible on waterlogged, abandoned homes. Front steps still stand after the houses to which they were once attached were ripped away by the rushing water. Vehicles lie twisted and mired in mud. Tree branches are littered with pieces of lives upended — basketball hoops and tricycles, toilets and Christmas decorations, headboards and books and pieces of metal roofs.
Research shows that particularly in low-income rural communities with limited housing supply and a population that is often uninsured or underinsured, residents can end up in a perpetual state of limbo after disasters. That reality is unfolding in Eastern Kentucky.
Without the means to repair damaged homes, obtain mortgages or scrape together rent, some people here are living in homes without electricity or running water, doubling up with relatives, staying in camping trailers or even tents — often with no end in sight. Some have moved away.
Between cash-strapped local governments, under-resourced nonprofit organizations and slow-moving federal recovery efforts, many residents have concluded that they are largely on their own.
“We already had a housing crisis,” said Scott McReynolds, the executive director of the Housing Development Alliance in Hazard, Ky. The floods made the problem far worse. “It’s staggering,” he said. “Folks are having to make hard decisions.”
One recent analysis found that 6 in 10 Kentucky families with homes damaged in the floods have annual incomes of $30,000 or less, a reality that makes recovery only more daunting, said Eric Dixon, a senior researcher at the Ohio River Valley Institute, a think tank that conducted the study.
“It’s very difficult to see how the folks who lost their homes are going to find the money to rebuild,” he said.
It’s dark by the time the meeting of the Breathitt County Long Term Recovery Team convenes in the basement room of a Methodist church just off Main Street in Jackson.
The two dozen people sipping coffee from paper cups represent numerous groups — the Red Cross, nonprofit groups, faith-based organizations, local government — working to help flood victims navigate a sea of ongoing needs six months after the unprecedented disaster.
But one issue rises to the top again and again.
“Housing, housing, housing,” says Jackson Mayor Laura Thomas.
On this night, group members mull over some of the hundreds of cases they are managing. One asks if anyone knows a contractor who can repair foundations wrecked by floodwaters. Another offers mold spray to anyone who can use it.
Another shares that a Catholic charitable group is donating building supplies and air-conditioning systems. A church in New Jersey wants to provide 300 refrigerators to people who need them. A humanitarian group has committed to building 20 houses nearby. There’s talk of how to prepare to apply for federal disaster grants, and of drafting a letter to state lawmakers.
Even as the group is desperate to build and rebuild housing, everyone agrees that another aim is equally important. “Ultimately,” says Jamie Mullins-Smith, the group’s co-chair, “the goal is to get people out of the flood plain.”
Not long ago, Roll’s foundation surveyed thousands of families to which it had offered assistance.
Fewer than half of the respondents were back in their homes at the time, and even then many were left to tackle mold and other damage. More than a quarter said they were living with relatives. Others were scattered among camping trailers and hotels. Some said they were living in tents, vehicles, storage buildings and barns.
Thousands of people will need help for a long time, Roll said. “We know how to do this work,” she said. “What we don’t have is enough capacity to do it fast enough.”
The recent report from the Ohio River Valley Institute, which collaborated on it with the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, estimated a cost of $450 million to $950 million to rebuild roughly 9,000 homes damaged by the floods, the bulk in the hard-hit counties of Breathitt, Knott, Letcher and Perry.
The lower figure is for repairing or rebuilding homes largely where they stood before the disaster. Relocating and replacing homes to less-flood-prone areas would cost far more in the short term, the group wrote, but could prevent more damage and death in the long run.
Any recovery will rely in no small part on outside funding and resources.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, said in an update this month that the government had approved $158 million in grants and low-interest disaster loans in the region.
That includes money intended for temporary housing, replacing personal property and meeting other immediate needs. Awards for housing assistance are generally capped at $37,900 — many people received far less — leaving a gap between sums awarded and what is required to repair many damaged homes.
“FEMA assistance is designed to meet a survivor’s basic needs. It will not fully compensate someone for the loss of their home and personal property,” the agency has written.
Last week, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia L. Fudge traveled to Eastern Kentucky to announce $300 million of aid — part of nearly $3.4 billion in grants set aside by Congress for disaster recovery in Florida, Puerto Rico and elsewhere. The funds are intended to help with numerous challenges, including economic revitalization, infrastructure repair and housing.
“I think that people feel left out and forgotten, when month after month they see no real progress, and only through the help of their own family or friends are they able to get by,” Fudge said in an interview during her visit. She said she came to impart a simple message: “We have not forgotten.”
Kentucky must create a plan for spending the money. But if that happens quickly and HUD approves it, Fudge said, money could begin to flow in as few as 60 days — unusually quickly for the federal government.
“What I want to see is us building housing that is going to be resilient, that is going to be able to stand up to the next storm,” she said. “We don’t want to build the same housing they have now. We don’t want to build in the same locations, in some instances.”
For its part, Kentucky’s legislature allocated $213 million of disaster funding in August but did not designate money specifically for housing. The bulk of the funds were aimed at shoring up key infrastructure such as bridges and roads, and helping to get schools functioning again.
Housing advocates have pushed state lawmakers to create an emergency affordable-housing fund — with an initial $150 million investment — that could be tapped after disasters to expedite repairs, elevate homes and build new houses. That idea has not yet succeeded, but the legislature last week voted to reallocate $20 million toward a rural-housing trust fund that will prioritize disaster recovery.
Even before the most recent floods in Eastern Kentucky, parts of the state endured another episode of severe flooding and devastating tornado damage in 2021. As the prospect of more compounding disasters looms in the future, advocates worry that recovery will only become harder.
“We are having more and more extreme weather events,” said Adrienne Bush, the executive director of the Homeless & Housing Coalition of Kentucky. “And our housing built in the 20th century is not up to the task.”
In recent months, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) has announced plans to build hundreds of new homes on higher ground — using a 50-acre parcel in Perry County, a 75-acre spot in Knott County and possibly other places to be designated — with construction partly funded with flood-relief money.
Finding usable land can be difficult in Eastern Kentucky, where narrow valleys and steep mountain terrain complicate building. It remains unclear how soon new housing would be available under those projects.
In the meantime, McReynolds said, “Every day, people are spending the resources they have on partial solutions or less-than-ideal solutions.”
Shannon Van Zandt, a professor of urban planning at Texas A&M University who studies the intersection of affordable housing with disasters, has seen how a catastrophe can affect low-income communities. When a tornado or hurricane or wildfire strikes, those who lack adequate insurance or steady incomes or have little savings lose their homes. And so begins a struggle that can last for years.
She and other researchers have found that housing in higher-income neighborhoods bounces back faster, and that at nearly every stage of recovery, populations that begin with fewer resources encounter more obstacles, often exacerbating existing inequities.
“It really is a long-term thing, especially for really vulnerable populations,” Van Zandt said. “We see a disaster and we think, ‘Well, it’s over.’ But it’s really just beginning for the people that experience it.”
For many residents here in Eastern Kentucky, an ending seems far away.
“I expected to be out no more than two months. Six months later, we are still here,” Megan Hutson, a 33-year-old hospital employee, said one afternoon at Carr Creek State Park, one of the spots where Kentucky once housed hundreds of flood victims.
The numbers have dwindled, but some families still are navigating where to go next. Hutson has lived here since August with her young daughter after their mobile home was knocked from its foundation and destroyed.
“I’m blessed to have a place to go,” said Hutson, who has worked to secure a loan on a new home. Even so, she said, “I worry when it rains.”
Thirty-five miles north in Lost Creek, Lena Shouse also is trying to rebuild her home and her life. The fast-rising waters inundated the brick house where she has lived since 2004, ruining everything in the basement and first floor, and destroying the mobile home where her son lived on the property.
Shouse had been sleeping in her car some days by the time President Biden stopped on her street and met with her family as he surveyed flood damage on Aug. 8.
“It’s going to take a while to get through this, but I promise you we’re not leaving,” Biden said that day a couple of blocks away. “As long as it takes, we’re going be here, and we are committed.”
Six months later, Shouse was spending a Tuesday afternoon sanding the drywall she had recently installed. Debris still sat piled in her yard. Water from broken gutters dripped into plastic buckets.
Family members and co-workers had helped her shovel mud from her basement and rip out sopping insulation. She had lived for a while with her daughter and had received financial help from the Red Cross and FEMA, she said, although not enough to replace all that was destroyed.
“I’ve pretty well done everything by myself,” said Shouse, who did not have flood insurance.
Despite the work that remained, she said she felt lucky still to have a home, unlike so many other people nearby.
“I’m just concentrating on getting everything back together,” she said. “I just take it one day at a time.”
Understanding our climate: Global warming is a real phenomenon, and weather disasters are undeniably linked to it. As temperatures rise, heat waves are more often sweeping the globe — and parts of the world are becoming too hot to survive.
What can be done? The Post is tracking a variety of climate solutions, as well as the Biden administration’s actions on environmental issues. It can feel overwhelming facing the impacts of climate change, but there are ways to cope with climate anxiety.
Inventive solutions: Some people have built off-the-grid homes from trash to stand up to a changing climate. As seas rise, others are exploring how to harness marine energy.
What about your role in climate change? Our climate coach Michael J. Coren is answering questions about environmental choices in our everyday lives. Submit yours here. You can also sign up for our Climate Coach newsletter.

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