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Eastern Kentucky residents say FEMA failures worsened February flooding

Damaged drainage culverts from the Feb. 17 floods in eastern Kentucky.
Deb Collier/ Facebook
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Deb Collier/ Facebook
Drainage culverts installed after July's flood were destroyed by heavy rains on Feb. 17

Heavy rain on Friday brought isolated flooding to eastern Kentucky, impacting many of the same spots devastated by major floods in July.

Last weekend’s damage led Letcher County, one of the epicenters of July’s flood, to declare a local state of emergency. County officials said they might apply for a new round of federal disaster aid.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency says it has already approved over $103 million in aid to help individuals and local governments recover from last summer’s floods. But residents and some Letcher County officials say FEMA’s strict regulations about debris removal and infrastructure repair have left large piles of debris and unfinished work throughout Appalachian eastern Kentucky and may have contributed to the damage last weekend.

Dozens of Letcher County residents attended a fiscal court meeting on Monday to voice their concerns about the recovery process.

“It’s hard when you’re trying to rebuild what was destroyed, and then here this happens, and the water came right back in my house,” said Tonya Boggs, one of the residents at the meeting.

The temporary bridge and culverts – pipes that are supposed to let water pass under roads – that cleanup crews installed in front of Boggs’s house after the July storm were dislodged and sent floating downstream over the weekend.

When those repairs failed, the water had no place else to go but over the banks and onto Boggs’s property.

 Tonya Boggs and her mother Teresa Burke spoke about damage to their property at a Letcher County fiscal court meeting on February 20.
Justin Hicks
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Justin Hicks
Tonya Boggs and her mother Teresa Burke spoke about damage to their property at a Letcher County fiscal court meeting on February 20.

“It’s raining all week and (the creek) is already stopped up again,” Boggs’s mother, Teresa Burke, said while thumping the fiscal court podium.

Local workers hired by FEMA to clean debris out of the creeks in the area also attended the meeting. FEMA’s guidelines allow cleanup crews to remove any debris that presents “immediate threats of significant damage to improved public or private property.”

But the workers said monitors hired to enforce FEMA’s rules told them to leave large piles of debris behind, including sediment, dirt and trees that could fall into the stream and clog the waterways during the next heavy rain.

FEMA has not yet responded to requests for comment.

Kentucky Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Jessica Elbouab said in an email that repairs to bridges and culverts were only supposed to be a temporary fix.

“These efforts were a priority to provide emergency access to residents impacted, and the repairs are legally limited to “temporary repairs, for emergency access,” Elbouab said.

Elbouab said permanent repairs would need to be paid for by property owners. People can use FEMA's individual assistance program to pay for such repairs, but Elbouab said bridge repairs may exceed what FEMA makes available.

Deb Collier, magistrate for Letcher County’s third district, said the damage could have been prevented with more robust recovery aid tailored to the region’s mountainous terrain and economic challenges.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the majority of this could have been prevented had it been done right the first time,” Collier said in a phone interview with KyCIR.

Collier said last weekend’s flood is the latest example of eastern Kentucky being left behind by state and federal programs.

“We’re kind of like the black sheep, and I just feel like the area is always accepting whatever crumbs the state and federal government throw at us because we don’t know if we’ll ever get anything else,” she said. “So, you know, we just kind of make it fit, and it's just a subpar solution for things like this.”

Letcher County is currently soliciting bids from contractors to remove more debris from waterways and stabilize the banks of some streams in the region. The projects will be funded by a separate federal agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service with work set to begin at three sites by the end of March, according to The Mountain Eagle newspaper.

This story has been updated to include a statement from Kentucky Emergency Management.

Jared Bennett is an investigative reporter and deputy editor for LPM. Email Jared at jbennett@lpm.org.
Justin is LPM's Data Reporter. Email Justin at jhicks@lpm.org.