This story was written as part of Southerly’s Community Reporting Fellowship.
Amanda Johnson never went to sleep the night of July 27, 2022. The electricity at her rented house, on Haddock Fork in the community of Chavies northwest of Hazard, Ken., went out around 10 p.m. By then, flood water was in her home, pooling around her feet. She retreated with her seven-year-old son, Emmett, and dogs to the hot attic. The rising water smelled of sewage.
“It was really loud,” Johnson said. “Between things crashing into the side of the house, our belongings below us banging around inside the house, our neighbors screaming, and the heavy rain that never stopped, it was hard to even hear myself think.”
Emmett prayed himself to sleep on a toddler-sized mattress at the top of the attic steps. Johnson had just enough space to sit and dangle her feet down the ladder. Eleven feet of water filled her house. After nearly five hours, she saw the red flashing lights of a fire truck and heard her husband Michael screaming her name from the road. When the water began to recede, firemen from the Chavies Fire Department rescued them from the porch and carried them to the road.
All across eastern Kentucky, people found themselves in similar or worse situations. Over a four-day stretch, rain poured on and off—at its worst, up to 4 inches an hour—causing flash flooding of rivers and creeks and mudslides on many hills.
Gerry Roll is the executive director of Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky (FAKY), a nonprofit that is a hub for community-centered philanthropy. She knew something was wrong too when she woke up that morning in Busy, a community outside of Hazard.
“I woke up hearing these buckets of water coming down on my house and thought, ‘this is bad,’” she said. “I turned on my porch light and saw the mudslide coming down.”
Many residents in Perry County, where Hazard is located, and other counties, woke up that morning to find creeks and rivers rising, land inundated with water, and homes severely damaged or totally destroyed. The 1,000-year flood event sent thousands of people into Red Cross and church-based shelters, hotels, state resorts, tents, or seeking refuge with family and friends. As of December, 44 people were confirmed dead and one is still missing.
According to federal data assessed by regional think tank Ohio River Valley Institute (ORVI), more than 10,000 households in Breathitt, Knott, Letcher, and Perry counties—the four hardest hit of the 13 with federally declared disasters—applied for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Nearly 16,000 people applied for aid as of the end of December.
Scott McReynolds, executive director of Housing Development Alliance (HDA), which builds affordable homes in eastern Kentucky, awoke that night trapped in his home. “I was flooded in and removing dirt so I could drive down my driveway,” he said. “The roads were out, power was out, water was out.”
Nearly four months after the flood, more than 216 people were still living at state parks and 660 were in FEMA travel trailers at 10 different locations, according to Gov. Beshear. By Jan. 26, 2023, 235 families were still living in FEMA travel trailers.
But there is not enough housing or rental options in the area to replace the homes that were lost—leaving many people with impossible decisions about where to live.
Even before the flood, housing shortages riddled the area. “I tell people before we left the office on [July] 27 that we had a housing crisis,” McReynolds said. “And of course, the flood did nothing to improve that.”
‘Housing can’t wait’
People looking for safe, stable, and affordable houses to purchase or rent in Perry County often find themselves searching for years with no luck. The Johnson family moved to Perry County from Louisville nine years ago, and stayed with Michael’s parents while they searched for their own place.
After four years, the house next door became available and they jumped on the opportunity. “That house really was a godsend when it became available to rent,” said Johnson. “We had been looking for so long…it seemed meant to be.”
According to the 2020 Census, Perry County has 13,025 housing units, with about 85% occupied; over three quarters of them are occupied by the owner. Units don’t often open up for new tenants or owners. And even if they did, the available housing wouldn’t be enough to shelter everyone displaced by the floods. In the county and across eastern Kentucky, most available housing consists of single-family homes and mobile homes, both with long-term occupancy rates. Many of these properties—and even some empty ones—have been passed down from family member to family member, never hitting the market. There are not many apartment buildings, either.
Several factors fueled the housing crisis in Perry County before the flood. Economic issues played the largest role; as the coal industry declined, few job opportunities remained in the area. Many low-income residents could not afford to rent or buy a home; housing development stalled.
Nearly three-quarters of FEMA aid applicants are homeowners, according to ORVI. And some of that housing stock was already uninhabitable, old, or in need of repairs or even demolition. McReynolds said that’s something the census doesn’t reflect: the quality of the housing. He estimates 40% of households in HDA’s service area of Knott, Perry, and Breathitt counties are “inadequately housed.” That can mean being homeless, or living in severely substandard housing that might be missing a complete kitchen, a lack of safe or adequate heat or plumbing, or with structural damage. Some homes are overcrowded, or prices are unaffordable for low-income renters.
Post-flood, about half the population in Perry, Knott, and Breathitt Counties is living in inadequate housing, according to McReynolds. Organizations like HDA that champion affordable, quality homes now have to figure out how to respond to the immediate needs of flood victims while keeping a focus on the longer term housing crisis.
At the time of the flood, HDA was the only organization in Perry County building new single-family homes for sale and, more recently, constructing developments such as Gurney’s Bend, a 15-home subdivision located in the Allais community of Hazard. Since its incorporation, in 1993, the nonprofit has built 335 homes, completed nearly 900 home repairs, and developed around 40 rental units.
More than ever, that seems like a drop in the bucket.
“It’s not lost on me that about three years ago, we said we were going to serve a thousand families in 10 years,” McReynolds said, “and here I am telling you that within our service area there’s at least an additional 2,000 families.”
Relief money has flooded in—but it’s not generally for long-term housing, but to meet immediate needs. The Red Cross, Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, and Gov. Andy Beshear’s Team East Kentucky Flood Relief Fund initially raised nearly $25 million, to cover funeral expenses and other needs, according to McReynolds. FEMA approved nearly $32.4 million to assist survivors with home repairs and rental assistance and $8 million to help with immediate needs, including medical expenses and childcare.
The state is slowly announcing housing developments, including a site in Hazard for 150 new homes. Officials are also working to develop housing on reclaimed mining land. The Olive Branch Community would be a subdivision in Knott County on flat, high ground with a community center and potentially a school. Still, there are challenges with building on this land, including extending infrastructure like water and sewage systems, and potential structural problems.
About a month after the flood, Kentucky legislators met in a special meeting to discuss needs. The legislature and governor approved $212.7 million to fund repairs for school districts, state agencies and nonprofit or public utility service providers. The bill, sponsored by Republican state Rep. John Blanton, did not have any dedicated housing funding for long-term needs.
“That was surprising and frustrating to a lot of us, because there was a lot of damage to schools…a lot of the infrastructure got washed away, so that was needed, but fundamentally this is a housing crisis,” McReynolds said. “There were thousands of people whose houses were impacted…so you were hearing the state say, ‘We’ll wait til January and deal with that in January.’ And meanwhile there’s people who can’t wait.”
“Housing can’t wait” caught on and became a battle cry in the community. Sen. Brandon Smith of Hazard proposed an amendment to the bill, which would add $50 million for affordable housing programs. The amendment did not reach the floor for a vote when legislators reconvened on January 3, and has not been voted on this session yet.
Smith’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Difficult decisions ahead
Recovery will involve hard decisions about where to rebuild, as it does in many communities impacted by climate change effects. Homeowners often have a connection to their land that goes back generations; a lot of property is home to family cemeteries. Many are built along creeks or on the edges of hillsides, but most did not have flood insurance (according to ORVI, only 4% of FEMA aid applicants had it). Some homes were not in the floodplain but were hit by landslides on the region’s steep hills.
“If we’re smarter and take the time and the resources to build outside of those flood-prone spaces, we will mitigate some of the risks for the next time,” Roll said. “Because there will be a next time. And we don’t want to put people back in harm’s way.”
Nonprofits and localities are trying to fill the gaps while awaiting more state or federal long-term housing funding. McReynolds said these groups are thinking about rebuilding in three ways: building subdivisions outside of town, community-based developments, and what he calls “place-space development,” which would allow people to stay in their community but move to higher ground.
HDA will build 12 homes in Perry, Knott, and Breathitt counties thanks to a grant from FAKY, and Housing Oriented Ministries Established for Service (HOMES) is building four in Letcher County, according to Roll. With HDA’s process, each impacted property is individually evaluated as to whether it is suitable to rebuild on, or if the home is livable, before repairs or reconstruction. But moving may be required to protect people’s safety.
Many people love the small-town community feel. And others love being in the country. For instance, McReynolds said, one gentleman said he’d love to relocate but didn’t want neighbors; a woman who lived on Lick Branch in Krypton said she’d move anywhere as long as she can keep her rooster. She doesn’t want to go to a subdivision because that rooster would be a problem.
Ultimately, the goal is to preserve what makes living in Appalachia special, McReynolds said.
This process requires collaborations between organizations like FAKY and HDA, local governments, and state and federal government officials. And there are projects in the works: FEMA approved more than $2 million for property acquisition in Perry County as part of a national hazard mitigation grant program that aims to make rebuilding after a disaster more sustainable. FEMA identified 13 properties from dozens of applicants to acquire from homeowners willing to sell at pre-flood fair market cost and turn them into green space in an attempt to prevent damage from future flooding.
In past years, the hazard mitigation process has taken up to three years to complete, a lengthy time for people who have lost everything, said Jerry Stacy, Perry County Emergency Management Director. He said the county worked with the federal and state government to reduce the wait to six months.
“The combination of FEMA’s willingness to trim time out, the state’s willingness to send teams to help us out with the application process, and then our teams here at the local level already putting planning together is trimming time off this process,” Stacy said.
Perry County is waiting for the agreements to return from the governor’s office to then begin working with the owners of the 13 properties to complete necessary paperwork on the local level. According to Stacy, the county has to pay for the properties up front and seek reimbursement through the hazard mitigation program.
Scott Alexander, Perry County’s judge executive, is excited about their progress in utilizing the property acquisition program to help those impacted by the flood. “To be at this point so quickly is a great accomplishment for our community. As we work to rebuild and recover, housing is one of the biggest issues that we face,” he said. “Perry County was in a housing crisis prior to the 2022 flood disaster. Now we are in a catastrophic housing situation.”
To migrate or not to migrate
Rebuilding at scale will take land, money and time—but those affected by the floods may not be able to stick around long enough to see the result. In communities devastated by the recent flooding, census numbers already show a downward trend. Perry County, for instance, much like other Appalachian Kentucky counties, has had a declining population as Kentucky and the U.S. population grew. This continues a long trend in Appalachian Kentucky as coal mining slowed and no other stable, well-paying industries took its place.
Since the flood, some folks have moved out of the area to stay with friends but hope to return home when they find housing. There is a possibility that people will have to leave the area permanently due to the lack of adequate rental housing or opportunities to purchase homes.
“We just have to do all that we can to offer people the opportunity and the hope that will keep them here,” Roll said. “At the same time, if someone feels it’s in their better interest to go somewhere else, then I wish them well. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t continue to try to build a place where other people will want to come.”
Amanda Johnson, in Perry County, wants to stay. But finding a new place to rent or buy hasn’t been easy. Johnson received some financial assistance from FEMA; she said her family used that money to replace a vehicle destroyed in the flood. Many whose cars were destroyed faced the same decision, using aid money to replace transportation or save for a down payment. Johnson said she received some aid from the Red Cross and has reached out to HDA.
However, the average amount of aid people received post-flood is miniscule compared to the need: According to the Ohio River Valley Institute (ORVI), the median FEMA Individuals and Household Programs award was $5,099.
“All the places I’m finding to rent are way out of our budget. I found one trailer—a trailer, mind you—that was $1,200 a month for two bedrooms and no kids allowed,” she said. “Beforehand, rent here was like $500 a month for two bedrooms. It’s like they know we got money from FEMA … They assume that we can afford it.”
Johnson and her family are temporarily renting within Hazard city limits in the community of Lothair. “It’s unlike anywhere I’ve ever lived before,” she said. “There’s people outside all the time. My door is locked all the time…a bit of a culture shock.”
Before she had children, Johnson and her husband lived a nomadic life, without plans to set down roots. “But since we’ve had the boys, we’ve set roots down here. We didn’t want them to have a life of instability. And now it’s all they have, uncertainty and instability. It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “That’s really the only thing we’re trying to get right now. We have food, we have shelter. We have everything like that—it’s just stability.”
Emily Jones Hudson is a poet, writer, and executive director of the Southeast Kentucky African-American Museum and Cultural Center, in Hazard, Ken., which is slated to have its grand opening in 2023.