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Whitesburg, Ky. begins to clean up and recover after record flooding

Appalshop Archive Recovery_2 (c) Oakley Fugate
Oakley Fugate
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Ohio Valley ReSource · Whitesburg, Ky. begins to clean up and recover after record flooding

In the Parlor Room, a longtime tattoo shop and music venue in downtown Whitesburg, the art-covered walls meet a bare floor, covered in mud.

John Falter oversees rows of sketchbooks, with the tattoo artists’ drawings, drying beneath fans.

"The water pressure pushed the doors wide open," Falter said of the storm that goaded the North Fork of the Kentucky River out of its banks and into the historic mountain city.

"As far as loss of stuff, it could've been so much worse."

Mud cakes the streets of Whitesburg. It’s on everything: shoes, cars, furniture piled outside of stores and houses. On sunny afternoons since the storm, dust rises into the air, making the normally humid place feel like a desert town. It smells like chemicals and gasoline.

Whitesburg Fire Chief Perry Fowler said city workers can't work hard or fast enough to get mud off the streets. There’s not enough water in the city tanks, and they’re trying to conserve it.  

"We need the water especially to spray mud out that sort of thing," Fowler said. "So we're going to have a tough time keeping the tanks full. But we've got to get the mud out just for health reasons."

The city’s losing water to pipe leaks, too, which officials are trying to fix. And when water does come out of the faucet, it's still not considered safe to drink.

"The boil water advisory is still in effect, and it will be quite some time before that's released," Fowler said.

Then of course, there’s Appalshop, this reporter's place of work. Founded in 1969 as a film workshop, the media organization has grown into one of the most recognizable institutions in the community. Nestled right next to the river, people have made documentaries, recorded music, written poetry and celebrated Appalachia in the company’s beloved headquarters.

Since 1985, Appalshop has run WMMT 88.7, an FM radio station that broadcasts music and voice from the mountains out to the world.

But now microphones, computers and recording equipment are piled against the window, covered in mud. The bottom floor of the building is unusable right now, said Meredith Scalos, Appalshop’s communications director.

“We are highly focused on the early phase of recovery right now, our highest priority being archival recovery,” Scalos said.

Appalshop’s legendary archives are full of film, photos, documents, art and other treasures that were severely damaged by the flood. Staff are salvaging what they can. But the work is backbreaking and tedious. Employees have to gently rinse mud from spools and spools of film, in hopes of saving at least some of it.

“It will take weeks, months, years to recover. And community is all we’ve got,” Scalos said.

In between shifts of cleaning, mucking and drying, Appalshop staff are volunteering at local shops and soup kitchens.

But the people of Whitesburg are exhausted.

At the Harry M. Caudill Library, a trail of dusty footprints leads to the computers, to the coffee pot, to the front desk. Muddy people walk in to sit for a minute, or just to talk with Alita Vogel, the head librarian. Sometimes she gives them a hug. 

“We're open today in Whitesburg and yesterday offering coffee and a place to just hang out, charge your phone,” Vogel said.

The Whitesburg library branch came out unscathed, but Vogel said libraries in smaller towns haven’t fared so well.

“I don't know how long it's going to be before [the libraries in] Neon and Blackey can open back up but I'll probably put on some boots and some grungy clothes and help clear out as much as I can. And then we'll just take it from there one step at a time,” Vogel said.

Outside, the mud clings to mail carrier Jody Holbrook’s shoes as he makes his way through town. Everybody knows him from his usual route down Main Street.

“We've got three carriers, but the other two carriers, one of them can't get can't get here,” Holbrook said. “And the other one, from what I understand, he lost everything he had. Nobody's even heard from him.”

Holbrook knows a lot of people in this town. The Parlor Room, the library, Appalshop, the apartments; he visits them all. But the post office flooded too.

“There's no way to describe what all’s piled up in there,” Holbrook said. “And now we just can't deliver. I mean a lot of my addresses, I pull up and their houses are gone.”

Holbrook turns away, blinking back tears.

“I'm sorry about that. We'll make it, I reckon,” Holbrook said.

A Federal Emergency Management Agency mobile unit is now stationed at the Letcher County Recreation Center, along with four other official locations in Perry, Knott, Clay, and Breathitt counties.

Assistance will soon be available in Floyd and Pike counties, as well.

FEMA can provide financial assistance for homeowners and renters whose homes were damaged on or after July 26. More information can be found at https://www.disasterassistance.gov.