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Eastern Kentucky still recovering one year after devastating flood

 Lisa King stands in front of the empty lot where her home once stood.
Jared Bennett
Lisa King stands in front of the empty lot in Letcher County where her home once stood. King's home was demolished after the 2022 flood.

In a press release earlier this week, state and federal emergency management agencies said the eastern Kentucky flood recovery was “on course.” But a year after the disaster, many are still waiting for aid.

Lisa King woke up July 28, 2022 to knee-deep water in her bedroom.

Within an hour, the rest of the house was totally submerged, but King, her boyfriend and their dogs escaped.

In the days leading up to the one year anniversary of the flood, King recalled the disaster.

“Even though we lost everything and I made it out with just pajamas –no shoes on my feet, no personal belongings whatsoever –we made it out with our lives,” King said.

But the losses continued over the following months. One of her dogs swallowed flood water during the escape and later died from fungal pneumonia.

King and her family lived with relatives immediately after the flood. She bought a motorhome, but it broke down before she could move in. Finally, she moved into a camper provided by Kentucky Emergency Management.

She still lives in that camper, but won’t for much longer: she recently bought a home.

King was able to sell her flooded property through FEMA’s buyout program, and purchased a new home in nearby Payne Gap. She’ll move there in mid-August.

It’s a success story that fits in with the state and federal government’s narrative of the flood’s aftermath. In a press release earlier this week, Kentucky Emergency Management and the Federal Emergency Management Agency said the eastern Kentucky flood recovery was “on course.”

Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, released a video shortly before the anniversary of the flood, promising to “rebuild every home and every life.”

But the process hasn’t worked out yet for many people in eastern Kentucky.

Wesley Bryant is on his ninth appeal for FEMA aid, attempting to get money to replace his waterlogged and moldy home. He said a FEMA employee first said his home was uninhabitable. But when he applied for aid, the agency said his home had not suffered enough damage to replace it. He said it feels like the agencies that are supposed to help him just aren’t.

“Everybody’s against us,” Bryant said.

A year after the floods, the walls of Bryant’s home still bulge and parts of the ceiling have collapsed. The bridge to his property was destroyed in the flood.

 A blue and gray flood-damaged home in eastern Kentucky.
Jared Bennett
Wesley Bryant's home is muddy and water logged a year after the flood. Bryant said FEMA determined the home wasn't damaged enough to replace.

Bryant and his family were living in a FEMA trailer until last month, when they moved into his in-laws house.

Bryant said he felt mistreated by FEMA employees who didn’t understand eastern Kentuckians.

“My PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is not from those waters,” Bryant said. “My PTSD is from that D.C. number that’s on the phone, where I’m going to get told how disappointing, or what a failure I am or… how my stuff is not valuable.

FEMA has paid out $108 million to individual flood survivors, but many people like Bryant are still frustrated with the agency.

Valrie Horn, the director of the Whitesburg-based Cowan Community Action Group, said the recovery process has been successful for many, but it's also been uneven and slow to reach many people.

“A lot of our community have built back and are in states of recovery but there are many who are not there yet,” Horn said. “There are some who I don’t think have begun the process.”

Meanwhile, people with success stories like Lisa King, who was able to sell her flooded property and buy a new home, still struggle to deal with what they’ve lost.

King, a retired nurse, said it was her dream to live in the part of town where her home once stood – Whitesburg’s Upper Bottom neighborhood. But the area is surrounded on three sides by the river. And now, many of the houses are either boarded up or completely gone.

“I had a beautiful little home, and it’s gone,” King said. “Even though I’ve got a lot, and I know I’m going to have a lot, it’s not like having your dream.”

Jared Bennett is an investigative reporter and deputy editor for LPM. Email Jared at jbennett@lpm.org.

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