As winter sets in, eastern Kentuckians wrangle with cold and flood aftermath
On the outside, it looked like an ordinary shed. But inside, the building bustled. Moving between two long tables, neighbors caught up while they looked through piles of toiletries, diapers and toys. In the corner, Donna Roark sat at a table, her makeshift office, conferring with her sister over a stack of supply inventories and other papers, a cup of steaming coffee in her hand.
Roark lives next door, and she opened the shed as a makeshift community distribution center after the catastrophic summer floods devastated eastern Kentucky. She kept it open because the needs keep changing as people rebuild.
“There are some people getting in their homes, and a lot of them need supplies,” Roark said.
She calls it the Peoples’ Building.
Several impromptu community distribution centers remain, like Roark’s, or Sweet Serenity in Vicco, Kentucky, run by longtime community volunteer Havanna Thacker and some of her family. Many other community centers have shifted back to their usual programming. It’s slower now that the swarms of church vans that filled the community in the summertime are gone.
There’s federal and state funds committed to the region, but it can be difficult for regular people to get money in hand. Roark said with so much money flowing in, she can’t believe so many are still struggling.
“Where is the money?” Roark asked, over and over. “Where is the money?” She said all her supplies have been donated by ordinary people, locally and elsewhere.
“It’s the people, it’s the community, that’s helped me,” she said.
During a special legislative session in August, lawmakers declined to take up a proposal to allocate funds for permanent housing in eastern Kentucky, promising to revisit the issue in the next legislative session. So far, that hasn’t happened..
Meanwhile, according to Gov. Andy Beshear, 262 families are still housed in travel trailers and 53 in state park facilities within the Commonwealth Sheltering Program, and FEMA has approved assistance for 8,589 families. Many were denied assistance, or are still on family members’ couches, in their own personal campers, or living in substandard, flood-impacted housing. According to housing advocates, 2,300 homes will be needed in the long run, at a cost of around $600 million.
Recently, the Courier-Journal reported a coalition of 28 groups are pushing for a flexible fund for housing in the region, called the Affordable Housing Emergency Action Recovery Trust Fund, or AHEART. Beshear has proposed a new housing development atop a strip mine in Knott County, but the road ahead for the project may be years long, and currently, only eight homes are confirmed for development.
Across several flood-impacted counties, people are creeping forward, making slow progress, but mostly, waiting. Waiting for crews to finish roadwork, FEMA appeals to come through, contractors and building materials to become available. That’s life in eastern Kentucky right now — in limbo, a holding pattern.
Janis Neace, Perry County, Ky.
In a holler near Hazard, Janis Neace lives on a steep hill above a creek. She buried her brother, father, mother, and husband there. She says someday, she’ll be buried there too.
Below the graves, the hill falls off at a sharp angle, down toward where the creek bends. She put her foot on the soggy yard, and felt it give.
“I can tell there’s more sinkholes. When it goes, it’s gonna go.”
She said she reached out to local officials to help build a retaining wall to keep the cemetery in place.
“And they said they didn't have the funds to help…they wouldn't even give me the dirt. Not one load of dirt,” Neace said.
Perry County officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.
FEMA gave Neace $6,000, and she raised even more on a GoFundMe, but so far she can’t find anyone to do the work.
Surveying her property through the pouring rain, Neace said she’s uncertain how to move forward.
“I don’t even know if I have the money to fix all this. But it needs to be fixed, I do know that, because the dead’s resting in peace,” Neace said.
After five months, Neace found a private contractor to do the work she needed. The hill remained, at least for now.
Tommy Newhouse, Knott County, Ky.
In Topmost, a hard-hit part of Knott County, Tommy Newhouse watched a crew of construction workers rebuild his bridge. The flood smashed it into the creekbed last summer.
Despite multiple disabilities, Newhouse managed to navigate the impasse by parking his truck across the road and walking across the creek. He says he called about 25 contractors before Davis Brothers company picked up the phone.
“Stress, stress, stress, stress, stress,” Newhouse said. “Dealing with FEMA has been nothing but stress.”
The contractors were in a hurry. December is late in the year for this kind of work. Newhouse said the path to this moment was full of eight-hour phone calls – mostly waiting on hold – and endless paperwork.
“You was in a disaster and they didn't care that your world got turned upside down,” Newhouse said. He lives on disability, and beyond the house, he doesn’t have much in the way of assets or savings.
But now at least something is happening. Newhouse walked out to meet the construction crew as they rebuilt his bridge. The backhoe started up. The culvert went in. Progress was slow, but it was progress.
Rosa Foss, Letcher County, Ky.
Rosa Foss arrived at the Peoples’ Building after a 10-minute drive from her state-provided camper at Carr Creek State Park. She lives there with her husband and two daughters. She brought her youngest, Molly, along.
Foss’s house was damaged in the flood. She drives about 30 minutes from the park to work on it, little by little. She put up a Christmas tree on the subfloor of the house this month, determined to at least celebrate the holiday at home.
“In the camper, there’s no way of putting up a Christmas tree, because it’s too small,” Foss said.
For a few months after the flood, she was running on adrenaline. As the warm weather faded, things started to feel more cramped.
“We’re all mushed together and everybody’s like, on top of everybody,” Foss said. “It was okay during the summer when they could get out and ride their bikes.”
While she talks to neighbors and picks out toiletries they need at home, Molly buzzes around, her curly red hair bouncing behind her. She’s outgoing and makes friends easily, but her mom said that when they’re alone, Molly gets sad.
“She was telling me this morning, she just wants to go back home,” Foss said.
Foss asked Molly’s teachers not to talk about severe weather warnings around her, because they make her too anxious.
Billie June Richardson, Letcher County
The holiday season wasn’t all cheer. More extreme weather came in the form of a severe Christmas weekend cold snap, which sent temperatures into the single digits. Donna Roark and staff at the Carr Creek campground say that community members sought shelter in designated warming centers, and the holidays brought frozen water lines and burst pipes.
Other community organizations spent their resources to make the holiday season brighter. Sweet Serenity, the distribution center in Vicco, held a surprise Santa Claus visit for local kids; the Hemphill Community Center near the city of Fleming-Neon held a gift giveaway in conjunction with Eastern Kentucky Mutual Aid. At the Millstone Missionary Baptist Church, volunteers held their first Christmas dinner since 2019.
That Saturday, Diane Baker recited the menu as she peeled russet potatoes into perfect spirals.
“Ham and mashed taters and beans and greens, pies,” she said.
In the warmth of the kitchen space heater, surrounded by Christmas decorations, Baker and a group of women joked and goofed with the ease of people who’ve known each other a long time.
Billie June Richardson, the pastor’s daughter, took a moment to reflect. Over the last five months, she and the church hosted toy giveaways and community meals. Before setting up for the evening’s meal, they cleared a room that was full of cleaning and building supplies for their community.
“I thought by now, we would be finished, we would be ready to move on, but we’re just not,” Richardson said.
The town of Millstone is still struggling. Since July, a few houses have been torn down. There are fewer campers in the parking lot by the main road, but still some.
A lot’s been said about the resiliency of eastern Kentuckians. But people can’t rely on themselves for everything, says Richardson. They need more help than ever. She doesn’t always know what to do.
“I'm asked daily, I get calls,” said Richardson. “Can you send me an electrician? Can you send me a plumber? Can you send me some help?”
But a lot of that is out of her control. People need more than she can give. They need housing and there’s not much available to rent, she said. The temperatures dropped quickly as the arctic cold closed in over the country, and anxiety was spiking.
But ahead of the Christmas dinner, Richardson focused on what was in her control: making everything feel special. She flicked electric candles on and off to make sure they worked, glowing soft and honey-colored.
“The women are decorating and they're cooking and we're having people come in from everywhere with food,” Richardson said.
Later that night, the whole room glowed with soft light. People piled in and lined up along the long tables, warming up and filling their plates with food.
“It'll be a nice night,” she said.
In the People’s Building, people gather and share their stories. Reva Taylor is searching for diapers for her grandbabies. Her house was destroyed after the neighboring hillside collapsed during the flood. She used to go to the Knott County Sportsplex for help with FEMA paperwork, but now that FEMA’s disaster recovery centers have closed down, she feels the loss even more keenly.
“They’re not there now, so we come here,” Taylor said.