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‘Here because we want to be here’: A perspective on eastern Kentucky flood recovery

Dee Davis is the president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Ky.
Dee Davis is the president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Ky.

Almost a month after massive floods hit eastern Kentucky, residents are deciding how to rebuild their lives. Dee Davis is president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Ky. WFPL News' Ryan Van Velzer spoke to Davis about his personal experience in the disaster and his hopes for the region moving forward.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Davis: We knew there was a lot of rain in the night. We woke up with the three grandkids. So we got up to make breakfast, and all of a sudden began to see things were bad. We just walked down in the yard and we could see the water up. 

Through a lot of this summer, the river has just been a trickle. You could see bushes and trees growing out of the riverbed all the sudden it was 300 yards wide and just a torrent. 

Van Velzer: How do people think about the changes in the weather?

Davis: I don't know how they think about it. All people talk about is the weather. They talk about the weather all the time. It at least stops us from talking about politics. I think that people are cognizant of changes. But also, you're disempowered, right? I mean, what is it that you can do to make a difference? And for the most part, the environmental conversation is coming out of urban areas. It's very consumer-based. It's not one, which I would say, has a real investment in rural life being sustained in these small towns. It's more or less big ideas to preserve a kind of metropolitan growth. A lot of rural communities are on the front lines [of climate change], farm communities, timbering communities, hunting communities. And I mean, the reality is that burning coal is likely to have the most effect on floods like this, right? These are the results of a kind of fossil fuel growth forever. And so now we’ve got to figure out what to do next.

Van Velzer: Is there any sense that politicians have left the people of this region behind, or are not doing enough to help them become more resilient to adapt?

Davis: What we have to do is create thoughtful alternatives and find the kind of leadership that can imagine east Kentucky being around for a longer haul, and can value the cultural life and the contribution that people here have always made to the rest of the country, besides powering the generators. You know people in rural places like this served in the Army, fought in the wars, they cut the timber, they farmed the food. They've done a lot for other people, and they still want to be of service.

Van Velzer: Do you see that resiliency? Do you see that kind of mutual aid, or communities coming together in these hard times to rebuild?

Davis: I mean, I think we've always felt part of the world, right? The coal we were mining and went somewhere else to be burned in value was added. And there were times when we got help from other places, too.

If resilient means that you've been knocked down a lot, people hit the same spot over and over and you keep going, then I'd say we're resilient. I mean, the other reality is that we're the poorest congressional district* in the United States, that the life expectancy here is worse than any other congressional district** in the United States. We're here because we want to be here. We love it, but that's not pretending that we're thriving and all's well.

* one of the poorest Congressional districts in the U.S. 

**one of the lowest life expectancies of any Congressional district in the U.S.

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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