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Eastern Kentuckians face paperwork, hurdles as they rebuild flooded homes

Katie Myers

People clutching folders full of paper flitted in and out of the FEMA disaster recovery center in Whitesburg, Kentucky last month.

Some of them looked worried, or angry.

Officials announced, without warning, that people rebuilding or repairing homes after the flood will have to apply for floodplain construction permits–complying with a 20-year-old ordinance that had not been actively enforced in the county.

On her way to her car, Amy Cokonougher stopped long enough to say, “It’s bulls***.”

She’s recovering from addiction and has no car. On top of the flood, she says the paperwork is too much.

“It’s ridiculous to have to go through all of this stuff,” she said. “And then, you know, maybe just maybe at the end of it, you might get some help.”

On Sept. 3,  the official Facebook page of Letcher County Judge Executive Terry Adams of Letcher County dropped the announcement from the local flood permitting office, saying: FLOODPLAIN PERMITS MAY BE REQUIRED.

But the rule – intended to make sure homes are built safely and with minimal environmental impact – has taken on new significance after catastrophic flooding in July. Not only out of need, but because of increased scrutiny from state and federal officials as relief funds flow across the region.

A few weeks after the announcement, Letcher County’s floodplain manager quit and an engineering company was brought in to oversee the revived permitting process.

In mid-September, representatives from the Kentucky Division of Water came to the temporary FEMA disaster recovery center in Whitesburg to discuss the issue with the public.

Billy Sexton, a volunteer firefighter from Millstone, showed up that day seeking information about the permitting process. Many of his family members are seeking FEMA assistance to help repair their homes, which means they’ll have to purchase flood insurance and get approved for a construction permit in the floodplain.

“How expensive is that going to be when people can't hardly make a living now?” Sexton asked.

Even City Manager Chris Caudill had already started rebuilding when the permitting announcement dropped.

“I mean, it is what it is,” he said. “They shouldn't have waited 34 to 48 days in into the process of people, either rebuilding or whatever, because, oh, you got to have a permit.”

Caudill’s house was nearly destroyed. He’s mad he has to get a flood permit before he can rebuild.

“If I want to live under a rock, I should be able to do that without anybody telling me I can or cannot do it, you know what I'm saying?” he said.

Floodplain Safety and Resilience

Thousands of eastern Kentucky homes were damaged by July’s record flooding. Many people immediately stripped their homes and began to rebuild with what they had. But rebuilding isn’t a straightforward process. The road to a flood-safe, FEMA-approved house can be a long one. And in the mountains, there are some unique challenges.

FEMA requires flood-impacted communities that want federal flood insurance programs to adopt a floodplain management ordinance. So if someone’s home has been flooded in Kentucky and they’re in the 100-year floodplain, they have to get two floodplain construction permits: one, a state permit, and two, a local permit.

Both of the permits are intended to make sure that new construction is flood resilient, and that projects don’t get in the way of the natural flow of water in the area. State water officials say it’s a safety measure and vital to preventing future catastrophe.

The permits are free, but if a home is determined to be “substantially damaged” – meaning repair costs are more than 50% of the home’s value – the homeowner is required to update to FEMA standards. The problem is, in eastern Kentucky, a lot of families have passed homes down through generations, meaning a home could have an abnormally low value. It doesn’t take much to get to $15,000 in damage on a $30,000 house. And updating to FEMA standards can be a lot of work.

The state has promised it will expedite permitting for people who have already started, and won’t punish them for the work they’ve done. But eastern Kentuckians are still frustrated. On top of FEMA requirements, it’s a lot to get through. Particularly when they’ve gotten less money than they were hoping for, or not at all.

Housing Organizations Step Up

Some organizations are taking care of the hard labor of rebuilding and the paperwork that comes along with the permitting process. Homes, Incorporated, an affordable housing nonprofit in eastern Kentucky, builds, rehabs and rents homes at a low cost to local families. After the flood, they’ve pivoted to address damaged homes. Currently, the organization has funds to build 25 houses per year, but director Seth Long says he’d like to build hundreds.

“If the right funding comes along, I know that the support of the community is here to do this type of things,” Long said.

He’s holding out hope the state will fund a long-term housing initiative in eastern Kentucky. State lawmakers failed to include such a measure in its $213 million flood relief package earlier this year. But money is also flowing in from local organizations. Long’s group has received funding from the  Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, alongside the similar Perry County-based group Housing Development Alliance.

As he spoke, Long stood by the riverbank strewn with a family’s possessions while a crew hammered and sawed and nailed away at their brand-new second floor.

“The house was three feet off the ground and then another three feet of water all inside. So it was totally destroyed,” Long said. “And you couldn’t fix anything, It had to be torn down.”

The house is well within the floodplain. The foundation of the new structure was rebuilt in accordance with FEMA regulations: it’s further off the ground, and built so that water can move around and through the foundation without collapsing it. There was no way to move the family out of the floodplain, so this was the next best thing.

Long knows the permitting process is arduous, but says the consequences of not undergoing it could be steep for individuals and for entire communities. If people refuse to get permits, he fears they may struggle to sell houses in the future.

“Which, in a sense, prevents them from gaining the wealth and passing it on to their family,” Long said. “They'd have to sell it for cash on their table or a land contract or something like that.”

Breaking the cycle of poverty in eastern Kentucky means the state and federal government need to step up to build housing, Long said. But he worries that there’s fewer and fewer people around who can even do the job.

“The scarcity of trades has been a reflection on the unhealthy housing market,” he said. “Developers haven't been attracted to come into eastern Kentucky to build because there's so many risks on so many different levels.”

Long said further erosion of the region’s housing stock could cause the market to spiral even further. But many people don’t know these things, because nobody ever really told them.

“It is so hard to get good consistent information,” Long said, “ You'll hear one thing from one official entity, and you'll hear something different that conflicts with what you just learned over here. And it's hard to reconcile the two and it creates confusion. And I think that confusion creates mistrust.”

Appeal, Appeal, Appeal

Derenia Dunbar, of Millstone, Kentucky, said the lack of contractors has hampered her ability to fulfill the permitting requirements. As the weather turns cold, she and her parents have been desperately searching for someone to fix their heating pump. But they can’t find a contractor to get them an estimate, which FEMA often requires for HVAC and certain other specific types of repair work. Her parents’ house has been stripped down to the studs since August.

The Dunbars completed the first steps quickly: they mucked the house, stripped it down to the studs. But then, for about two months, the house has stood empty and cold.

“I've contacted three different people. And that's how busy it is,” Dunbar said.

The house needs central air, but there’s not many with that expertise who can be found within driving distance of Letcher County. And a lot of people need similar help.

“That tells you how many people have lost their homes,” she said.

Even assuming you get a contractor estimate, that’s only the beginning. Finding the materials necessary to build has been challenging, too. The cost of lumber has surged, and people who can’t find what they need in Letcher County’s small, independent hardware store need to travel about forty minutes for a bigger one.

As people look for the money to rebuild, many have found they’ve received relatively low estimates from FEMA – in the hundreds of dollars for thousands of dollars worth of work. The average FEMA disbursement for this disaster so far is a little under $4,000. According to the National Flood Insurance Program, the average cost of repairing one foot of water damage for a 1,000-square-foot, one-story house could be over $23,000.

FEMA media representative Patrick Boland said those low award amounts are actually for contractor estimates, and are intended to be appealed. But FEMA doesn’t make that clear.

Boland is trying to heal some of the information gaps through community engagement efforts, from radio spots to town halls.

“We've had to calm tempers, right,” he said. “People had the sense that this was the only assistance they were gonna get. But that is not the case.”

Derenia Dunbar is trying to be patient. She’s done all the things she was told to do — it’s all just taking  longer than she thought.

“It’s kind of like the road’s real crooked instead of straight for everybody,” she said. “It’s just real crooked. You have to stop at a couple stop places, you know?”

Questions about rebuilding?

Help on construction questions is available from FEMA representatives at the Hometown True Value Hardware in Salyersville and the Rural King store in Pikeville. They will be there from Oct. 17-22, 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. The FEMA application deadline is Oct. 28. Those who have already applied can still appeal after this date.
For questions relating to FEMA applications and appeals, call the the AppalRED Legal Aid hotline at 1-844-478-0099 or visit their website.

Find out if your home is in the floodplain at the Kentucky Division of Water floodplain map. See this Floodplain Development Guide for more information.

For floodplain-related questions contact your local floodplain coordinator, see this flood permit application fact sheet, or call the Division of Water Office of Floodplain Management at (502) 564-3410.

In-person help with FEMA and  permitting questions is available at these FEMA Disaster Recovery centers:

    • Pike County
    • Dorton Community Center
    • 112 Dorton Hill Rd
    • Pikeville, Kentucky 41501
    • Letcher County
    • Letcher County Recreation Center
    • 1505 Jenkins Rd.
    • Whitesburg, Kentucky 41858
    • Knott County
    • Knott County Sportsplex
    • 450 Kenny Champion Loop #8765
    • Leburn, Kentucky 41831
    • Perry County
    • Hazard Community College

  • 1 Community College Dr.
  • Hazard, Kentucky 41701

This story is part of the “America Amplified” initiative. America Amplified is a national public media collaboration focused on community engagement reporting.

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