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‘Despicable’: Kentucky Republicans react to flood cleanup problems reported by KyCIR

A red car sits next to creek after massive floods in eastern Kentucky.
Justin Hicks
A car was picked up and tossed into trees along a creek that flooded near Jenkins, Ky.

Reporters asked Gov. Andy Beshear about a recent investigation into the eastern Kentucky flooding cleanup process at press conferences Wednesday and Thursday of this week. Both times the governor said he had not read the entire piece, but that the state would “do our best” to address the concerns raised by survivors.

Kentucky Republicans are criticizing Gov. Andy Beshear over his administration's handling of the expensive project to clear debris out of eastern Kentucky following last summer’s floods.

The critiques follow a Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting story that found cleanup crews took personal property and even demolished homes without permission from flood survivors. The state gave cleanup workers broad authority to enter private property and remove debris.

At the same time, an analysis by KyCIR found cleanup crews removed only 59% of the debris found in early estimates by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. State officials said federal rules prevented workers from removing certain kinds of debris such as dirt and sediment from streams throughout the region.

Locals and experts warned that debris left behind would clog up streams and worsen flooding damage during the next heavy rain. Those concerns reached top state officials including advisors to Beshear, but survivors and those involved with the cleanup process say their warnings went unheeded.

"Andy Beshear promised to be there for the people of Eastern Kentucky and he has broken that promise,” Republican Party of Kentucky spokesperson Sean Southard said in a press release. “The company he hired is terrorizing survivors of the Eastern Kentucky floods, destroying what little remains of their most valuable belongings.”

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet hired Florida-based Ashbritt Inc. to lead the cleanup process. The state has paid that company $157 million since the July floods.

Kentucky Attorney General and Republican candidate for Governor Daniel Cameron called the actions described in KyCIR’s report “despicable”in a tweet from his campaign account.

“Behind all of Beshear’s happy rhetoric lies a simple truth: failed leadership and incompetence,” the tweet said. “Something must be done and when I’m Governor, I will be a leader for all Kentucky.”

Reporters asked Beshear about the cleanup process at press conferences on Wednesday and Thursday of this week. Both times the governor said he had not read the entire piece, but that the state would “do our best” to address the concerns raised by survivors.

“This is the toughest cleanup, when you look at the miles of streams and the topography, and we're looking at the toughest rebuild, I think that the United States has ever seen,” Beshear said.

“And while that means there will be challenges, we need to make sure that we're treating each and every person who was impacted well. That we are showing them that we care about them. And if something's gone wrong, we do our best to fix it.”

On Wednesday, Beshear said another $10 million phase of the debris cleanup aimed at removing debris from private property was underway.

Not all Kentucky Republicans blame the Beshear administration for the slow cleanup project. State Senator Johnnie Turner, a Republican from Harlan, said rules imposed by the federal government prevented crews from fully cleaning out the streams in the area.

Turner brought some of his own heavy equipment to help cleanup the town of Fleming-Neon in Letcher County, but is still waiting for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to pay him for the rest.

FEMA will reimburse local governments for work clearing out debris after a disaster, but only if that work meets specific requirements. In eastern Kentucky, KyCIR found FEMA would not pay to remove sediment clogging streams and drainage culverts. Kentucky officials said this created an “impasse” that slowed progress and forced workers to leave debris behind.

“The federal government is the biggest problem, it ain't the state government,” Turner said. “It’s the federal government that restricts the ability to, when it gets flooded, to be able to take up an excavator, reach into the river, clean it out so the next time it rains it’s three feet deeper than it was when it filled up and there’s someplace for the water to run and keeping it from coming out of the banks and damaging all of the property.”

Turner said he has brought up those concerns with members of Kentucky’s Congressional delegation including Republicans Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. Hal Rogers. McConnell did not respond to a request for comment.

In an emailed statement, Rogers said he shares “deep frustration” with flood survivors whose belongings were destroyed by cleanup crews.

“Emergency disasters don’t come with an advanced playbook, especially a historic flood of this nature in our rural mountainous communities, but our people deserve to be treated with the utmost respect and concern throughout the relief process,” Rogers said.

Rogers said his office received calls from flood survivors and local leaders relaying “troubling information” about the cleanup process and passed those concerns on to President Joe Biden, Beshear and FEMA.

“We need to prevent these failures from happening again in the wake of natural disasters, and I aim to highlight these heartbreaking stories as we examine next steps at the federal level,” Rogers said.

State Sen. Turner said eastern Kentucky will see more major disasters until the federal government acts.

“We’re going to have flooding continuously,” Turner said. “We’ll have it again in Harlan County. We’ll have it again until the federal government alleviates that problem.”

Lily Burris contributed reporting to this article.

This story has been updated with additional information.

Jared Bennett is an investigative reporter and deputy editor for LPM. Email Jared at jbennett@lpm.org.

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