After major floods, Kentucky grapples with the damage left behind

Photo by Arden S. Barnes for The Washington Post
East Main Street in Hindman, Ky.

HINDMAN, Ky. – Pat Sutton Bradley was clearing out the mud and damaged furniture when she found it: a poem titled “Don’t Quit,” printed on a laminated piece of paper.

Like hundreds of other residents here, Bradley’s small business was decimated by the catastrophic flooding that hit eastern Kentucky last week, leaving more than three dozen dead and millions of dollars in damage. Her business looked like a “wet war zone,” she said.

Bradley attached the missive to a filing cabinet, and found herself looking at it often Tuesday. “Today is the worst day I’ve had,” said Bradley, a retired postmaster and longtime resident. “I’ve picked and flipped and thrown and tossed. I was exhausted. Didn’t sleep well last night. But today, I’m drooped.”

Knott County, where Bradley lives, has much to grieve. Kentucky Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear said Monday that 38 people were killed in last week’s overwhelming floods. Many of those deaths – at least 17 – were concentrated here.

“The way that it’s affected each person is just phenomenal,” said Tabatha Mosley, 36, a longtime resident who repairs stringed instruments in Hindman. “There were lives lost, homes lost. Just a total flip.”

The downtown of Hindman, the county seat, has only one intersection with a stoplight. A row of two- and three-story buildings flank both sides of Main Street. Two days ago, the sidewalks were caked with thick mud. On Tuesday, mud-specked debris – arranged in piles a few feet high after being removed from the insides of businesses – waited to be trucked off.

Forested hills surround the town on all sides and Troublesome Creek, which overflowed last week, winds its way by on its way to the Kentucky River. “Country. Mountains,” said Mosley describing the area. “Just a little hometown. If you blink you’ll miss it.”

Near downtown sits the Hindman Settlement School. The school was founded by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1902 to give the children of local coal miners a basic education and knowledge of traditional arts like weaving and woodworking, said Will Anderson, the school’s executive director.

For the past several decades, the settlement school has worked to bridge unmet local educational needs and nurture local authors, Anderson said. The school is also a preserve of Appalachian history. Documents, artifacts and traditional instruments – some more than a century old – were stored in the school’s basement.

Photo by Arden S. Barnes for The Washington Post
Kris Patrick, who works as a luthier at the Appalachian School of Luthiery, looks for a fret kisser tool in the mud covering the floor of the shop.

Last week, a wall of water blew the heavy doors of the basement off their hinges, smashing glass partitions and threatening a valuable collection of local culture. The large doors narrowly missed staff members who were working frantically in the basement to preserve the collection.

“If they’d been standing a couple feet over, it would have hit them,” Anderson said. “We might have had a fatality.”

Within minutes, the water was chest-deep in the basement. Outside, a dozen vehicles – many of which belonging to participants in a literary workshop the school was hosting – were swept away by a raging current.

The staff’s work on that night and through last week likely saved the majority of the collection, Anderson said. More than 20 antique dulcimers, a stringed instrument native to Appalachia, were largely spared.

After the flood, the school put out a call for help. Volunteers and staff flooded in to “triage” the collection, assessing what was most in need of saving. On Tuesday, tables were full of old photographs – some stained brown and curling at the edges – sitting in neat rows and drying out.

“We had a lot of experts in preservation of documents here, we had probably 50 volunteers,” Anderson said. “There was like a magic window, the first 72 hours after the flood, where we had the best chance of saving these materials. That’s when we had this operation.”

Since the flood, the school has also provided shelter to local residents. There are about 100 beds on campus, and 38 were occupied by those who lost their homes. Despite their loss, Anderson said that many of those lodging at the school were eager to help preserve the collection. One woman told Anderson that she wanted to give back because of how much the school helped her.

“Her mobile home got swept away in the flood,” Anderson said. “She got nothing out of it, other than escaping it. And yet here she is trying to work and help us recover.”

That woman was Mosley. She said she lived in the community of Carrie in a trailer. Many of her neighbors were her family. In the middle of the night, the water came fast, Mosley said, and much higher than she’d ever seen. While she escaped to higher ground, the water carried one trailer into another, like dominoes, until eventually demolishing hers.

“It was so loud with all this metal churning and glass breaking,” Mosley said.

Her family escaped with some of their cars and waited with them on higher ground for hours until the water cleared off the roadway enough to drive out, eventually making their way to the school. Facebook friends, she said, found family photos from their trailers downriver in another county.

Rebuilding could take years, Beshear has said. But Bradley said she believes in this community because of how they’ve grown up and grown together.

“We grew up hard,” Bradley said. “From there, we will succeed. We’ve done it all of our lives. And we’ll come out of it.”

The excessive rainfall in eastern Kentucky is consistent with an observed trend toward more extreme precipitation events in the United States in recent decades. Scientists have linked this increase to human-caused climate change as a warmer atmosphere is capable of holding more moisture and producing heavier rainfall.

Water from Troublesome Creek and other usually small streams flooded in places that many locals say they have never seen high water before.

That was the case for Mosley’s home, adding that her landlord did not have flood insurance. She said that the high-water mark of the catastrophe should be considered in the rebuilding process.

“It’s definitely something to pay attention to,” Mosley said. “They don’t call it Troublesome Creek for nothing.”