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Behind the scenes of 'Dirty Business' — a documentary about eastern Kentucky flood cleanup

KyCIR Reporter Jared Bennett interviews eastern Kentucky resident Justin Branham after the July 2022 floods.
Justin Hicks
KyCIR Reporter Jared Bennett interviews eastern Kentucky resident Justin Branham after the July 2022 floods.

Reporters for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and Louisville Public Media spent months digging into the dirty business of disaster cleanup.

Dirty Business: How flood cleanup left eastern Kentucky feeling violated and vulnerable
Listen to the full 1-hour documentary from the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.
A piece of equipment sits in a soggy field of eastern Kentucky flood debris.

Debris was everywhere after floods devastated eastern Kentucky in July 2022.

In the first weeks after the floods, the hotel parking lots would come alive at night with the out-of-town workers who’d come to clean it all up. They’d wash their heavy equipment, gather around fires in garbage cans and try to unwind after long days spent clearing the mess left behind the region’s most destructive, and deadly, disaster in decades.

There, on one of my first reporting trips to the area, I learned some of them were expecting a big payday, and others were frustrated by the pace of the work and conflicting instructions from state and federal officials.

The debris came up in nearly every conversation with local officials and flood survivors. As early as last September, just over a month into the recovery process, it was clear that something was going wrong with the cleanup process, and people wanted answers.

A pile of flood debris fills a creek in eastern Kentucky after July 2022 floods.
Justin Hicks
A pile of flood debris fills a creek in eastern Kentucky after July 2022 floods.

LPM’s data reporter Justin Hicks and I spent months filing records requests, talking to experts across the country and meeting with sources in eastern Kentucky to try and find the whole story.

We explained how the cleanup process was both aggressive — demolishing homes and clearing private property without flood survivor’s permission — and also incomplete, with tons of dangerous debris left behind. We performed a first-of-its-kind data analysis to show that crews removed only 59% of the debris left behind by the floods. The mess that remained made another round of floods in February even worse.

Next we wrote about the massive price tag attached to this work and explained the flaws in the debris cleanup system that allow private companies to score major profit in the wake of disasters.

Kentucky has paid a single company, Florida-based AshBritt Inc. more than $170 million to manage the cleanup. The cost is more than the Federal Emergency Management Agency paid out to flood survivors, and it’s far more than the initial cost estimates for the project.

After our reporting, Kentucky Republicans criticized Gov. Andy Beshear’s handling of the recovery. Attorney General and Republican candidate for governor Daniel Cameron called the events described in our story as “despicable.” Then, lawmakers and Kentucky Transportation Cabinet officials defended the process while suggesting further investigations may be warranted.

In this documentary, we told the full story in one place.

“Dirty Business” chronicles the flood and debris removal process. It’s the culmination of nearly a year’s worth of reporting.

Why does this story matter? Because this process repeats itself after pretty much every federally declared disaster.

And the debris cleanup industry is growing more lucrative and influential as climate change supercharges storms and brings more frequent, larger disasters our way.

Just last week, the White House told Congress that FEMA was running short of funds and asked for another $16 billion to cover the cost of disasters in Hawaii, Louisiana, Vermont and Florida.

Preparing for climate change means preparing for more disasters. We hope that officials learn from what went wrong in Kentucky before the next storm hits.

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