Spotlight Exclusives

Capturing the Heroism of Everyday People in a Kentucky ‘Apocalypse’

Dee Davis Dee Davis, posted on

Torrential rains caused a massive flood in eastern Kentucky last July, killing 45 people and displacing thousands in one of the most economically challenged regions of the country. But that all-too-common example of extreme weather also prompted acts of remarkable courage and heroism from ordinary people faced with a one-in-a-lifetime challenge. The team at the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder, decided those stories needed to be captured and have produced a new documentary, “East Kentucky Flood,” to try to create a historical record of an event that otherwise might become just another flood in an era of a rapidly changing climate. The Center’s president, Dee Davis, talked to Spotlight recently about the documentary and the care he and his team took to portray their neighbors with a dignity that too often gets lost amid stereotypes of smalltown Appalachia. The transcript of that conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Dee, it’s great to meet you, particularly as someone who grew up in Louisville and still has family in the state, including in eastern Kentucky. Let’s start with how this documentary came about.

The day of the flood, we knew there was going to be some flooding, but we didn’t know quite how bad it was at my house. My six-year-old grandson and I went down to explore. And when we got there, the river, which is usually about 10 miles across in the summer, was about 350 yards across and everything was under water. We had had this deluge of maybe 13 inches of rain overnight, so we knew this was bad — but then we started getting reports and nobody could go anywhere. In our county (Letcher), they’re estimating we lost 20 percent of the housing stock and about four counties were totally inundated.

Our offices escaped by the width of a brick — it was just four inches from getting up into our offices. We dodged the bullet but some of our supporters started sending us some money, which we decided to move on to people who needed it. And what we told them was, don’t send us a report or anything, but maybe we’ll come get your story at some point. That was the germ of the idea for the documentary — we’ll get the stories from these people who were on the front line. And that’s what we do, we’re a communications outfit and a lot of us came out of doing productions. That’s not what we do every day. We work on policy issues. We have the Daily Yonder, and we have the Rural Assembly, which is a national confederation of different organizations working on rural issues.

But we said, well, why not? And then we started getting these stories. The thing about it is sometimes people are reticent to tell what they’ve seen, but this was more like the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. Everybody wanted to come up to you, grab you by the lapels and tell you what they’d seen. There were people who had seen devastation they could never have imagined and saw incredible heroism as well. We wanted to catch those stories and we felt like in a world with so much going on and so many of these weather events, it’s so easy for this to become just one more.

You get inundated with reporters from everywhere and then, of course, a hurricane hits in Florida and you never seem them again. I’m not blaming them; there are a lot of great reporters who come in and do the work and then they get out. But we thought, well, what can we do to make this meaningful? And to us, that was to get into the communities that were affected. We ran the documentary without commercial breaks and were able to get it aired on the local CBS affiliate in Hazard, which is 30 miles from here, and on the state public television network, KET, and it’s available to everyone on YouTube.

We’ve been fortunate with all the support we’ve received, but particularly the generosity of people with their stories. It’s hard to explain the heroism of everyday people. There’s a fireman who went in with a life jacket in a kayak and saved 14 people out of their homes and he couldn’t even swim. There’s just one story after another of neighbors rescuing more than a thousand people in this area. That’s exceptional, and it needed to be documented in a way that people in the region could be proud of and would allow us to begin to create a discourse for people who don’t live here, but who care.

What’s been the reaction?

It’s been awfully good. When you make a movie, you always say, I should’ve done this or I should’ve done that. But the response has been very good. Most of the time people in eastern Kentucky are fairly sensitive to portrayals because they’ve often been portrayed as stereotypes. Sometimes, people are ready to react negatively to any portrayal. But we’ve been given a lot of support. We’ve been given a lot of thanks from people who said, thank you for not showing us as poor and pitiful. Thank you for showing the strength of the people here and the intelligence. And again, I don’t blame the CNNs of the world, but they’re going to come in when the visuals are at their height and they’re going to talk about the poorest, the most extreme conditions. That’s just the nature of the news. They’re not from here and that’s not their fault.

As someone who did that kind of work for a long time, I think the intentions are almost always very good.


But they can’t understand the community like you do.

They’re not gonna wake up here.


And I think it’s not like you can’t do a good job if you come from somewhere else. I believe you can. I think there was some extraordinary work done by New York Times, and you’ve got many good writers who can come in and do the work. It’s just not the same. I think that in some ways the mission of the journalist is to come in and say, okay, when are the schools going back? Are the FEMA payments coming through? Are they big enough? And those are all important, but we were dealing with people who had witnessed an apocalypse . . . something biblical. And those are the stories we wanted.

And in terms of engaging in that dialogue with people on the outside who may be willing to help with the recovery, how has that gone?

There are a lot of different people working on this issue with lots of expertise and we’re a communication and policy shop, so it felt like that’s where we could do the best. And it’s kind of taken an all-hands-on-deck approach for us to get what we got and get it done. Now we’ll think about how we can be most helpful going forward.

And were you able to do this completely with folks in your shop?

Our little gang yeah, I think it was our gang who did everything from the promotion to the soundtrack. My wife, Mimi Pickering, is an Appalshop filmmaker and I conscripted her to work on this. It was fortunate for us in that we had a lot of the talent. We made it because people trusted us with telling their stories, and that’s sometimes hard.

Something we can do is try to tell the story in a way that other people and other places can connect with as a kind of challenge that people in Pakistan and Puerto Rico and around the globe are going be experiencing and finding ways that create a common discourse. So, that’s our idea, but you know, those are big words. The first thing we could do is just catch these stories and get them out.

And are you going to continue to capture them?

We want to. We have a joint reporting effort with Grist, the climate publication. We’ve got a good-size story coming out about warning systems and things like that. We’re going to continue to do journalism and I think we’ll probably continue to do video vignettes.


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