Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Floods inundating Appalachian communities are ‘public health nightmares’

Drone footage of flooding in Eastern Kentucky in February. Screenshot courtesy Ben Childers Photography

Carolyn Lawson was trapped in her home for two days after 6.9 inches of rainfall flooded Pineville, Kentucky in early February. Water from the mountain behind her house rushed beneath her foundation, turning a feeder creek for the Cumberland River, neighboring fields, and Highway 221 into a lake 150 feet across and dozens of feet deep. Lawson, 50, has lived in the area her whole life, and although she’s used to floods, this time was different. “I’d never seen the water that high out there,” Lawson said over the phone. “I was really scared.” 

Though her yard is a mess, Lawson, operations director for a shelter called LightHouse Ministries, said she couldn’t complain because she’s “seeing people who’ve lost everything.” The shelter housed about 25 people, mostly families, during the floods. 

Much of central Appalachia was underwater for well over a week due to flooding from heavy downpours. Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia declared states of emergencies. Tennessee’s governor has not, but the eastern part of the state saw damage from flooding. 

Kentucky officials are calling it a “one in 100 year event,” but these types of floods are more frequent, exacerbating problems in a region already facing crises like contaminated drinking water and widespread pollution from coal mining. Harlan County Judge Executive Dan Mosley said flooding has increased in the winter months since he took office six years ago, with February floods occurring five out of the last six years. Some low-lying homes — those in a holler or along creeks and riverbeds — flood every year. “It’s not safe for a place to flood every year for five years,” said Mosley. “You think of public health nightmares from people living in a home that continues to flood.” 

Emergency officials rescued over 100 people across the region — some residents reported being trapped in their homes for five days — and multiple schools and businesses closed due to high water. In Kentucky, over 217 homes were impacted, which state officials called “well above the norm” for flooding events. 

BarbiAnn Maynard lives in Kentucky but fills her water in West Virginia because of water contamination issues in Martin County. Photo courtesy BarbiAnn Maynard

An associated rockslide in Kentucky pushed train cars carrying ethanol into the Big Sandy River, catching fire and spilling oil into the waterway. One death has been reported: Ronnie Bryant, a 74-year-old Kentucky grandfather who drowned on his way to work when water submerged his vehicle. Some Kentucky county officials estimate damage in the hundreds of thousands of dollars; two counties in Virginia say they’re facing well over $2 million.

The floods have further destabilized communities in a region that has long been struggling because of a lack of investment in basic infrastructure, including crumbling drinking water systems and dams in poor condition. And rain events like this are becoming more frequent and intense. Ohio Valley ReSource reports that rainstorms in Kentucky posing a flood risk — at least two inches in 24 hours — have increased 20 percent since the early 20th century. Perry County Judge Executive Scott Alexander said climate change does come up in discussions of emergency management, and his community can “adjust as we need to,” should major flooding events continue. 

Kentucky residents and officials praised the emergency response. Mandi Sheffel, 38, opened the doors to her new bookstore, Read Spotted Newt, one week before flooding hit her community of Hazard. She nervously watched the north fork of the Kentucky River rise before moving everything in her store three feet off the ground. The river crested at 26.2-feet, crossing Main Street and pushing two feet into low-lying businesses, including her own. Sheffel called the local emergency response “fabulous,” and said mud slurry covering the parking lot and road was cleared the following day.

BarbiAnn Maynard, a Martin County resident, said her home along the Tug River was 12 feet from the flood zone in early February, but she’s experienced flooding every year since 2012. Her family’s home has been rebuilt three times and it now sits 15 cinder blocks high with flood gates at either end of the foundation. 

Some residents, including Maynard, expressed frustration with the fact that the flooding makes health and infrastructure challenges harder for communities to handle. A water crisis has prevented many people in Martin County from using tap water for two decades: In 2000, over 300 million gallons of coal slurry washed down the Tug River, contaminating the community’s drinking water source. Aging infrastructure and an overextended water treatment plant have further degraded water quality. Multiple counties in Kentucky, West Virginia, and southwest Virginia also face frequent water line breaks, boil advisories, and concerns about contamination from industry. 

According to Maynard, a request to declare a state of emergency for Martin County’s drinking water crisis sat on former Gov. Matt Bevin’s desk most of 2019. Gov. Andy Beshear has promised to address drinking water issues, but he hasn’t declared a state of emergency yet. 

Flooding in Martin County, Kentucky in February. Photo courtesy BarbiAnn Maynard

Some county officials are taking on the responsibility of addressing these problems. In response to more frequent flooding over the last six years, Harlan County has adjusted how and when they test the flood control system installed by the Army Corps of Engineers after a catastrophic flood in 1977. Mosley said he has requested more equipment and personnel from the state to help clear out ditches and tiles so water can flow more easily around roadways during times of flood, and he said the area needs renewed federal investment to buy out homes. 

At least a dozen counties that declared emergencies are hoping to receive FEMA assistance. In the meantime, Mosley said the county is making sure roads are safe and coordinating with local churches, ministries, and nonprofits to find local solutions like food and clothing vouchers. 

But he isn’t optimistic that, if approved, they’ll see federal assistance anytime soon. “We’ve not had an individual assistance declaration since I’ve been here, so all I can base it on is what I’ve heard from other places,” said Mosley, referring to county officials from other Southern states hit by hurricanes and tornadoes. “What I’ve heard is it’s very slow and the process is very long.” 

Austyn Gaffney is a freelance reporter in Kentucky covering agriculture, energy, and climate change. Her work has been featured in HuffPost, In These Times, onEarth, Sierra, Vice, and more.

This story was supported by the Even T. Collinsworth Jr. Memorial Fund.

Top photo: Drone footage by Ben Childers Photography.