Shirley Howard’s feet were drenched in nearly a foot of water when she got out of bed on a summer morning in July amid a torrential downpour.
A severe flood engulfing the Appalachian region of Kentucky reached his bedroom at night. The family took their dogs and ran out of their brick bungalow in Jackson as the water finally rose to the ceiling.
Ten months later, they still haven’t returned home. Howard, her husband, son and their three dogs, Maisey, Charlie and Lilly, live in a cramped state-provided trailer. At least 100 other families are living in trailers and hundreds more remain missing, living with relatives or in destroyed homes while they rebuild.
“I look forward to going home every day,” said the 65-year-old Howard.
Howard’s home and nearly 9,000 others in 13 counties were severely damaged or destroyed in the intense four days. storm which dumped up to 16 inches of rain in eastern Kentucky. High tides have pushed houses off their foundations, blocked roadways and submerged mountain towns under several feet of muddy water. Thousands like Howard had to take what they could and flee. More than 40 people died.
It was one of the worst floods in Kentucky history, devastating one of the poorest areas in the country. Homeowners in the mountainous region inhabited by coal miners a century ago live in flood-prone valleys that offer the only flat land for building homes, an area that -suffering from the housing crisis before the flood.
Disaster recovery in poor areas like this part of eastern Kentucky presents many challenges for victims who already face setbacks before floodwaters rush into their homes. An inch of water inside a home can cause more than $26,000 in damage, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“There’s food insecurity, there’s a lack of affordable housing, there’s a lack of access to resources… disasters.
Kentucky’s challenges are mirrored by disasters that strike impoverished areas across the country. Low-income families may not qualify for disaster loans, and conflicting rules and separate criteria for a federal aid package could slow and complicate recovery, according to national guidelines. expert.
“They’re still recovering from Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana,” Ray said of the 2005 disaster, which flooded much of New Orleans.
For a region with long-standing poverty and housing issues, Kentucky’s massive flooding has plunged thousands of homeowners — nearly all without flood insurance — into deep trouble. crisis. One study estimated that it could cost nearly $1 billion to offset housing losses in the region.
“We had a housing crisis before the flood,” said Scott McReynolds, executive director of the Housing Development Alliance, a nonprofit that provides housing and repairs for needy residents in southeastern Kentucky. . The group was working with 400 families even before the flood.
The Howards are using FEMA dollars to restore the interior of their home, because they don’t have flood insurance, which costs hundreds of dollars a month.
“It was too much for us,” said Shirley Howard.
The report states that 60% of households affected have an annual income of $30,000 or less. Full housing improvements in the flood-affected region will cost an estimated $957 million, which will include relocating some at-risk homeowners from flood-prone areas to avoid future costs, it says.
FEMA donated about $106 million to Kentucky flood victims for repairs, cleanup, storage, relocation expenses and other short-term needs. The maximum FEMA payment is $39,700, but the average grant is closer to $20,000, McReynolds said.
A significant federal grant of $298 million from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development was announced in March to fund long-term infrastructure and flood housing needs. Another $20 million was allocated earlier this year by Kentucky lawmakers, the fund to be split between flood victims and people who lost their homes in the 2021 tornado in western Kentucky.
But the big allocation of federal money may be slow in coming, and it’s unclear how much will go toward housing, said Rebecca Shelton with the Appalachian Citizens Law Center, who co-authored the Kentucky flooding study.
“The big concern is really the timeline,” Shelton said. “It’s going to be many months before these (federal) funds are implemented and I don’t know how much longer people who don’t have enough shelter can stay.”
In Jackson and surrounding Breathitt County communities, bare house foundations, eroded creek and stream banks, and scattered debris are the glaring signs of devastation.
Jeff Noble, the top elected official in Breathitt County, is still in shock as he talks about the devastation in his county, which was also hit by flooding in March 2021. One of his constituents has yet to find the body of his wife after it was lost in the flood in July.
“Unbelievable, really,” said Noble.
The Howards were beset by delays in repairing their home. The interior was smashed to studs in the wall; it needs flooring, electrical wiring and new drywall. They, like most in the disaster zone, have trouble finding workers to do the work, with at least one handyman skipping them. Howard isn’t sure their FEMA help will be enough, with no flood insurance money coming in.
Many victims who lost their homes are rebuilding in flood-prone areas, because that’s all they can afford, McReynolds said. “We know there are a lot of people who are buying garden sheds and trying to turn them into tiny houses.”
His Housing Development Alliance is one of a coalition of six nonprofits that has received nearly 500 applications from flood victims who want to build new homes, McReynolds said.
Nonprofit housing groups, along with Kentucky’s governor, are looking at a longer-term solution: moving vulnerable families from flood-prone areas to higher ground. McReynolds said future government funding will help the region transform.
Democratic Governor Andy Beshear launched an effort to redevelop former mining lands, to create new housing developments out of the floodplain. So far, 125 acres in two counties have been donated, and state and federal funds, along with money from flood relief donations, will help finance the effort. Officials broke ground on the first home in February.
With help from McReynolds’ nonprofit, homes are also being built on a new road near Jackson.
Peach Tree Street’s first resident, Deborah Hansford, moved into a two-bedroom house on the upper lot in late March. He was forced out of his home in Jackson by the 2021 flood, and last year’s flood struck again, removing any hope of return.
Last year’s disaster hit his family hard. His brother suffered a stroke due to the flood and died a month later, he said.
Hansford used his FEMA assistance to pay for his new home with green siding and a spacious front porch.
“I feel safer now,” she said, enjoying her balcony on a mild spring day. “Hopefully a flood like that never happens again.”
Photo: Volunteers from the local Mennonite community clean up flood-damaged property in Hindman, Kentucky, in July 2022. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
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