Spotlight Exclusives

Resilience and Recovery in Eastern Kentucky After a Once-in-a-Generation Flood

Matt Klesta Matt Klesta, posted on

Torrential rains caused a massive flood in eastern Kentucky last July, killing over 40 people and displacing thousands in one of the most economically challenged regions of the country. While the rest of the nation has long ago moved on to the next disaster or extreme weather event, the people of that region are still very much in the midst of a long and arduous recovery. A new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland describes some of the steps they’ve taken so far as well as the challenges they still face. The report’s author, Senior Community Development Analyst Matt Klesta, spoke with Spotlight recently about some of the after-effects in the region, such as housing and labor shortages. The transcript of the conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Why don’t we remind readers of what happened in eastern Kentucky?

There were very tense, very slow-moving thunderstorms that crossed over eastern Kentucky, and in a lot of places it dropped 14 to 16 inches of rain. It just overwhelmed the rivers and the creeks, washing out the roots and the bridges, washing away homes and closing down businesses. At the end of it, 44 people died and nearly 9,000 homes were impacted. And I guess the thing to keep in mind is this wasn’t the first flood, and unfortunately, it’s not going to be the last flood in this area.

There are probably three reasons why flooding is more prevalent in this area. Most obviously, it’s topography—you’ve got the mountains and it just kind of pours that water down into the valleys. And people tend to build where it’s flat, and that tends to be in these low-lying areas. Finally, you’ve got a coal mining legacy where there is compacted soil that allows water to flow down those mountains faster.

And what made you want to study this particular event?

I guess I’d say I have a soft spot for rural areas. I’ve got an urban studies background, but I do a lot of backpacking and I would do a lot backpacking in Appalachia. And I was always just struck by the beauty of the area, contrasted with the amount of poverty, and working at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, eastern Kentucky’s in our district. And I’ve always wondered, what is causing all this poverty? Where do these people work? What’s going on in this economy? I’ve done a bit of work there, looking at migration and looking at health outcomes. So, when this flood happened, I felt like I wanted to examine this a little closer. And I also have an interest in housing too, so I just kind of blended the rural with the housing into this piece.

Why don’t we go through your major takeaways after doing the study.

One of them was the cost of flood insurance can be prohibitive. Normal homeowner’s insurance is not going to cover flood damage, so you need a separate flood insurance policy. And on the average in this part of Kentucky, those are going to run about $1,300 or $1,400 a year. And the median income for the 13 counties that were declared a federal disaster area is about $37,000. So, it’s a significant chunk of that income and that makes for some difficult discussions in a lot of those households. One of the stats that jumps out at you about the flood is that only 5% of homes that were damaged had flood insurance. And households earning $30,000 a year or less those accounted for 60% of the homes damaged.

Rolling into another key finding is that the floods exacerbated affordable housing shortages. Nearly 9,000 homes were impacted and in the four hardest-hit counties nearly 25% of their occupied housing units were impacted somehow by the flood. About 60 some percent are single-family homes, there is a substantial minority that are manufactured and about 8% are multi-family. As you can imagine, a manufactured home is not going to withstand a flood very well or be able to be repaired. And then in looking at the research, you find low-income renters are more likely to suffer permanent displacement, as there are fewer relocation options.

Especially in a rural area.

Right. And then lower-quality housing, it tends not to be rebuilt. It tends to be just demolished and it’s hard to replace. If you didn’t have insurance, FEMA will provide up to $37,900 depending on your damage, and that’s not going to cover the cost of a home.

It may be too early, but is there any sense on the ground there of how many people are leaving, how many people are staying, how many people are trying to rebuild?

Anecdotally, in talking to people, there are more people leaving the area, but that’s a tough one to document. I was looking at United States Postal Service vacancy data and in the four hardest hit counties between quarter three and quarter four of last year, there was a 19% increase in residential vacancies. That may be indicating that people are leaving, but you also have this historic outflow of people, I mean, in these four counties, going back to 1984, they’ve been losing 600 people on average each year. So, it’s hard to know if they flood is accelerating the process.

And tying in with this population loss, the flood also impacted the local labor economy. When you have an event such as this, you need a lot of construction workers, plumbers, electricians, and carpenters and there just aren’t enough of them in the area. Going back to 2006, the share of construction employment has been going down, so that really creates a backlog for people to trying to repair or rebuild their home.

I know you don’t specifically call out potential policy solutions, but I’m wondering if there are things that as a result of doing this work that you feel like government entities should be thinking about doing?

Probably the best one is moving people to higher ground. The state has so far acquired about 200 acres of land that’s elevated, and that could hold a few hundred units. That takes time, but it’s the only sure solution. There are flood walls or flood gates that can help mitigate the risk, but that’s not a 100% solution. But then on the other hand, it’s not like you can just move all of these towns up to the top of the mountain, especially when there’s such a deep connection to the land; for some families, their land has been in the family for generations. There’s a tension there, but the best solution is to move.

Finally, this is a report full of facts and figures, but I’m sure in talking to folks, it really was a once-in-a-generation sort of experience, and I’m sure you were very struck by that as well.

Absolutely. There’s been floods, but this was a whole different level. One quote that I remember is, one of the people I interviewed was driving around afterwards helping out, and they said you just saw all of everybody—you saw their whole life out in the street or the yard drying out.

As you’re well aware, it’s such an economically challenged part of the country under the best of circumstances. So, to go through this, your heart really goes out to those communities.

And just the time it takes to rebuild too. I mean, best case scenario is five years. I guess the other thing is that the research says that you don’t really go back to normal. You’re never quite back to the pre-disaster state. You just sort of get subsumed into this new normal, whatever that might be.

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