Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Summer storms, Kentucky caves, & a coal miner’s climate movement

It rains with such intensity these days. Not the typical Southern summer thunderstorm that barrels through quickly, making the asphalt steam and the sticky air smell sweet. No, these storms feel more powerful, vindictive, as if they’re trying to prove a point. Last month, one knocked a giant tree down in my parents’ backyard. Earlier this week, I found two cracked in half, splayed across a road near my house. Debris is scattered for weeks afterward, washed up from storm drains and ditches. Creeks and streams keep overflowing, carrying rotten smells and sometimes necessitating boil advisories.

Recently, someone sent me a video of a flooded creek wiping out a bridge in Eastern Kentucky, hundreds of gallons of muddy water flowing every second. A quick Google search of “southeastern storms” turns up warnings from weather reports almost every week about flash floods and downpours and unexpected consequences. Governors throughout the region have declared states of emergency during the winter, spring, and summer months.

When the storms pass, the air feels new and the fresh sunlight is blinding — just like it’s supposed to be in the final days of summer. It makes it easy to forget the damage ever happened.

At the end of May, Subtropical Storm Alberto brought heavy rains to the region, slamming the Florida panhandle and the Gulf Coast with multiple inches of rain within hours and causing flooding in a wide swath of the rest of the region. While much of the attention during these storms —like ones before it — focused on the coast, inland communities were hit hardest. During Alberto, the worst of the flooding was in the Appalachian Mountains. Asheville, North Carolina saw more than 14 inches of rain in May — the highest since officials started recording in 1869. The Associated Press reported that in the North Carolina mountains, a landslide caused a gas leak that destroyed a home, killing two people. Two journalists were killed in North Carolina when a tree fell on their vehicle while they were reporting on the heavy rain. Flooding and mudslides were reported in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.

As the climate changes, extreme weather occurs more frequently. According to federal data, the South has warmed about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970, and is expected to warm anywhere from 4 to 8 degrees more. There has been an increase in the intensity, frequency, duration, and strength of Atlantic hurricane activity since the 1980s, which is only supposed to worsen.

Despite this, communities — especially those inside the coasts — are still largely ill-prepared and underfunded to keep up with such storms. In Nashville, a woman spoke to local media in a last-ditch effort to get her house elevated since it has flooded five times in a decade. She said she received little to no information about her eligibility from federal and state regulators or city officials. Flooding caused damage in 38 Kentucky counties earlier this year, and they’re supposed to get $3 million from the federal government to repair roads and bridges. West Virginia is still trying to recover homes from the deadly 2016 floods; Gov. Jim Justice recently announced that new contracts will have to be processed before restoration because many of the previous ones weren’t done properly. New Orleans didn’t include new rain and stormwater management in a $2 billion post-Hurricane Katrina infrastructure plan.

The examples of mismanagement and misinformation are abundant, but there are people and places responding to these challenges, finding ways to prepare and adapt. If you’re in an inland community — whether it’s a small mountain town, a rural area, or a bigger city — and know of a way officials, individuals, or organizations are coping, please email me: I’d love to hear about potential solutions to this problem.

Stories worth your time

Jesmyn Ward wrote a gorgeous essay for Time’s “American South” issue on why she decided to return home to Mississippi. “We are trying to understand that one person’s fate predicates another’s, that this illness of racial violence and oppression affects all of us–not just in Mississippi, but throughout the South, America and abroad.”

In the winter of 1925, Kentucky cave explorer Floyd Collins became trapped underground. Mental Floss tells his story, and examines how little we know about the state’s massive cave systems.

Pacific Standard profiles a 66-year-old former coal miner who is building a climate movement in West Virginia that benefits miners. “I’ve lived my whole life off the benefit of fossil fuels, and then leaving behind this world that’s going to hell,” Probst said. “The thought of my grandkids at some point saying: ‘My grandparents knew about this. What were they doing? Did they just ignore it?'”

News flying under the radar

Fayette County, West Virginia official is urging state regulators to deny a 24 percent water rate hike the water company is asking for.

Charlotte, the third largest financial center in the U.S. after New York and San Francisco, is reimagining its urban center to try to attract younger, more ethnically and socioeconomically diverse people.

A stone wool insulation plant is being built in Jefferson County, West Virginia on a former orchard, and residents are concerned about toxic emissions from 21-story high smoke stacks.

Three schools in Guilford County, North Carolina test high for lead in drinking water, and many of the students affected are low-income.