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Slow Recovery: Repeated Floods And Storms Strain East Kentucky’s Aging Infrastructure

Cleanup in downtown Beattyville after the March 2021 flood.
Corinne Boyer
Cleanup in downtown Beattyville after the March 2021 flood.

Katrina Bostrin had never seen the lake come up that quickly before. She’d lived in Jackson, the county seat of Breathitt County, Kentucky, on and off since she was a child. It had come up to the garage before, but never inside her home. 

As she spoke, a volunteer crew from a local church ripped out a ruined floor. They had just finished with the living room, where Katrina stood on the bare wooden subfloor. “This was where we celebrated Christmas every year,” she said, as afternoon light streamed in through the window. 

During the flood that started on the final weekend of February the water was six to eight inches deep indoors. Katrina and her two sons waded to her aunt’s house, but their trials weren’t over. “The next day,” she said, “that was when they came through, saying we had to evacuate immediately.” 

Katrina was evacuated from her home near Panbowl lake, along with about a thousand residents, including a nursing home which, she says, is likely to close down. Local emergency management officials feared the dam would breach. In the end, it did not, but as the lake receded, residents like Katrina faced the prospect of a long cleanup.  

In a region where highways, dams, water systems and other infrastructure necessities are aging, repeated severe weather events have added to the strain, forcing communities to spend their resources fixing new problems rather than on improved resilience and upgrades. 

Aging Infrastructure

It’s not just residential homes that need rebuilding — highways, county roads, power lines, and water mains will likely require millions of dollars in repairs.

Breathitt County, along with many others, faced record flooding in the last weekend of February, prompting Gov. Andy Beshear to declare a state of emergency. More than7 inches of rain fell in some areas. Officials and aid organizations say that while the initial event is over, rebuilding could take months. The rain not only damaged structures, but triggered landslides, felled trees, and overwhelmed water systems. In many counties, water main breaks spurred shutoffs and boil water notices.

To make matters worse, major structures are beginning to show signs of age. Panbowl Lake, a seven-mile-long oxbow lake, is dammed by a section of Highway 15 that dates back to 1963. 

Though many feared on March 2 that the dam was destabilizing, H.B. Elkins, spokesman for District 10 of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, said he had no fear the dam might fail. His biggest worry was that the river would rise higher than the road, pouring back into the lake. Elkins was particularly worried about potential closures on Highway 15, a major commercial artery and the shortest road to Lexington. Luckily, these outcomes were avoided. Engineers are now working to stabilize the embankment, but Elkins said the fix is temporary.

In Beattyville, a small city in Lee County, which borders Breathitt to the west, the Kentucky River rose quickly on March 1, destroying homes and businesses. Four to six feet of water entered most businesses on Main Street. A few days after water receded, dried mud still caked the street as furniture and carpets were tossed into dumpsters and truck trailers.

Los Two Brothers Mexican restaurant began repairing floors and replacing walls soon after water drained to the creek below the building. Restaurant manager Alexis Townsend said she does worry that the restaurant could flood again but hopes that it doesn’t. 

“Because I really like my location, and I like my community, and I don’t want to leave this restaurant,” Townsend said. She said some businesses won’t reopen on Main Street and plan to relocate on a new road on higher ground. 

Beattyville Mayor Scott Jackson said the flood led to a boil water advisory but they were issued a few days before the flood. 

“But we've had leaks that put us on a boil water advisory a little earlier than that,” Jackson said.  He noted that flooding limited the city’s capacity to test their water. Because drinking water is piped from the river, work can’t be done until the river goes down. 

Echoes of 2020

This is the second major flooding disaster in less than two years for east Kentucky. While 2020’s flooding concentrated in another watershed — the Cumberland River, in far southeast Kentucky —  some community members are unlucky enough to have been hit twice. Perry County, next to Breathitt, experienced flooding in both years.

Mandi Sheffel had opened the Read Spotted Newt, her independent bookstore, only seven days prior to the February 2020 flooding event. That morning, she remembers, she watched the river slowly rise, and knew she had to pack away all of her merchandise. As she did so, the water rose and rose, eventually to two feet, causing damage that would take months to repair. “It was devastating,” Sheffel said. 

She sat in her new location, up a hill by a busy intersection on Memorial Drive. Her store is high and dry. One might think she would now escape the worst of the flooding, but almost exactly one year after water reached her store, the high water found her again —  this time, in neighboring Breathitt County, where she lives. The creek rose high enough in her holler that she was trapped there for three days. 

As she sat at a small table by the window of her bookstore, she said she thought disasters were coming more often than they once did. After the 2020 floods, people reassured her that she wouldn’t see its like for a long time.

“I had people say, it’s been fifteen years since this happened,” she said. “And here we are again, almost exactly a year later.”

In a recent analysis of flooding risk data, the Ohio Valley ReSource found roughly 5% of Kentucky homes are at increased risk of damage, largely due to more frequent heavy downpours in a warming climate. 

But in east Kentucky the risk is far higher. In Breathitt County, where Katrina Bostrin and Mandi Sheffel live, 56% of homes are at risk of flooding, according to the analysis. In Perry County, home to Sheffel’s bookstore, 42% of homes are at risk. The areas with some of the highest risk are also among Kentucky’s — and the country’s — poorest counties. 

While Sheffel notes Hazard did not fare as badly this year as other towns nearby, the city still faces severe environmental challenges. The newest tenants in Sheffel’s old building downtown are currently handling water damage, just as she did a year ago. Municipalities are finding that even with increased investment in resilient infrastructure, repeated flooding interrupts even best-laid plans. 

Hazard’s city officials recently invested $9 million in infrastructure, which the city is directing toward water system improvements. But Downtown Coordinator Bailey Richards said repeated natural disasters continue to divert attention from preventative measures. Richards is hopeful that businesses will continue to open downtown, but the water seems to creep up to the same section of Main Street every year. 

“It’s degrading the system faster than it normally would,” Richards said. “It’s getting harder and harder to catch up.” 

Dual Disasters

Perry County Emergency Management officials have come to expect a busy February, but it’s difficult for responders to predict which communities will be hardest hit. While some areas of the county hit hard in 2020 were spared this year, others have seen record flooding, which followed right on the heels of a historic ice storm. Perry County Emergency Management Director Jerry Stacy still had crews out removing downed trees and repairing roadways when the flood undid their progress. 

Though many hope this event is an anomaly, trends say otherwise. In eight of the last 10 years in Kentucky, floods, landslides, tornadoes and severe winter weather events have resulted in disaster declarations by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  Experts say climate change has made east Kentucky increasingly vulnerable to increased flooding and landslides. In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency released a report on the subject, detailing a 27% increase in heavy rainfall events across the Southeast since 1958. Sixty inches of rain fell in2020 alone, a significant departure from the historical average. And east Kentucky often sees high rainfall well into the spring — in 2020, FEMA responded to widespread flooding a second time, in later March.

Multiple counties are now preparing damage assessments, and the state submitted applications to FEMA for federal disaster declarations for both the flooding, and the ice storm that preceded it. 

Governor Andy Beshear said help is on the way through the COVID-19 relief legislation recently signed by President Joe Biden, which will make money available for infrastructure improvements in towns and counties. 

“A lot of them have water and sewer projects that need to be done,” Beshear said of the flood-impacted areas. “And we'd have a chance, if we spend this right, to help those areas be more resilient to these types of flash floods or other disasters in the future.”

The funding will focus on repairs for the eight most heavily-impacted counties: Estill, Lee, Owsley, Breathitt, Powell, Jackson, Clay and Johnson. Local officials hope public assistance will arrive soon, but they will likely not receive word on FEMA’s decision until April.

Correction: An earlier version of this story appeared with an incorrect byline. The story was reported and written by Corinne Boyer and Katie Myers of the Ohio Valley ReSource. 

The Ohio Valley ReSource gets support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and our partner stations.

Jeff Young is managing editor of the Ohio Valley ReSource, a journalism collaboration led by Louisville Public Media.

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