How coal mining and years of neglect have left Kentucky’s cities at the mercy of floods

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FLEMING-NEON, Ky. – This patch of land wedged between the dense forests and Wright Fork Creek has been the home of Gary Moore’s family for as long as there has been a United States. The cemetery for an ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War, he said, is a mile away. Mr Moore himself lives in a mobile home opposite his father’s house; the house where his grandmother lived is next door.

It was all destroyed in last week’s flooding.

“This is kind of the last straw,” said Mr. Moore, 50, as he looked out at a new expanse of torn houses, crushed cars and endless debris. “We’re gradually losing it – that bond we had. It’s slipping away. People are leaving here, trying to get better jobs and better lives. I’m leaning in that direction myself.”

For most of the last century, the land was powered by the labor of miners beneath the hills and mountains of southeastern Kentucky. But the landscape built to serve this work was fragile, making the people here extremely vulnerable, especially after the coal industry closed so many mines and moved on. What remained were modest, unprotected houses and dilapidated infrastructure, and a land that had itself been stripped of its natural defenses in many places.

When a torrent of rain poured into the hollows last week, turning creeks into roaring rivers, overwhelming old flood records, killing at least 37 people and destroying countless homes, that vulnerability was brutally made clear.

“When you have a century of billions of dollars and resources left, there’s very little left to create the infrastructure people need to live, and it’s neglected for as long as it has been,” said Wes Addington, a lawyer in nearby Whitesburg. , whose law firm is now a flooded wreck, “when that’s combined with a really insane flood, it’s a catastrophe.”

Southeastern Kentucky, which includes some of the poorest counties in the country, differs from many other rural areas, which have populated county seats surrounded by largely empty countryside. Here are small communities scattered across the mountains, small clusters of shotgun houses and mobile homes that stretch for miles along creeks and hollows. Many of these camps were once coal company camps, said Mr. Addington, who grew up there himself. They were built a hundred years ago for miners and often mentioned – like the Fleming in Fleming-Neon – for coal company executives.

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The work in the mines was always grueling, but in the heyday of coal it made for a glittering series of small mountain towns. Fleming-Neon was once one, full of restaurants and shops, a movie theater and an Oldsmobile dealer.

“When I was in high school, we had businesses all over here,” Mr. Moore recalls, gesturing to storefronts that had stood gloomily empty long before the water came through.

In Letcher County, where Fleming-Neon is located, the number of people working in the mines has fallen about 95 percent from what it was in 1990; the province itself, which now has 21,000 inhabitants, has since shrunk by about a fifth.

With the departure of coal companies, populations became scattered in small communities across the mountains, making waterlines, roads and other vital infrastructure subtly thin. With the gradual disappearance of coal came a dramatic drop in tax revenues, causing much of this infrastructure to crumble long before the flood. For a population that is older, poorer and in poorer health than much of the country, and thus heavily dependent on social and health services, this would have already been a crisis.

Many former miners, their bodies and lungs broken and poisoned by years of arduous underground work, were never able to find another reliable job; less than half of adults in Letcher County are employed and more than a quarter of people under the age of 65 report having a disability. The median household income is about half of the national income. The median home value is only $54,700.

“It’s hard, it’s really hard,” says Kathy Arnett, 40, who grew up in a cave not far from Fleming-Neon. “They just don’t bother putting anything into this to help our families.”

Mrs. Arnett spoke of the difficulty of finding much of anything around here, especially a good job. It was toxic to the young, she said, the sense of uselessness that can occur.

“I hold our presidents — not one, all of them — accountable,” she said. “They should have tried it sooner.”

Government surveillance designed to ensure home security is weaker here than in other parts of the country. In much of Kentucky, there is no enforcement mechanism for building codes for single-family homes, said Corey Roblee, vice president for government relations at the International Code Council, a group that oversees the development of building standards. Those codes are intended to protect structures against threats such as flooding. Letcher County, as well as some of the other counties hardest hit by the floods, have no local building inspector at all, according to state archives.

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Yet building regulations mainly apply to new construction, and there isn’t much of that anymore these days. No building permits were issued in the province in 2021, according to census data. Of the 10,500 homes on the verge of the flooding in Letcher County, fewer than 120 had flood insurance, according to FEMA records. In the town of Fleming-Neon, only one property did.

As last week’s storms arrived, they rolled into a mountainous topography “exceptionally prone to heavy rainfall,” said Matthew Eby, chief executive officer of the First Street Foundation, a New York-based flood risk mapping group. According to First Street data, two-thirds of Letcher County homes are at high risk of flooding, as are most of the county’s critical infrastructure, such as fire stations and schools.

And as temperatures rise over time, due to the burning of coal dug from these mountains, warmer air can hold more moisture, allowing more rain to fall faster.

The country itself has also changed over the decades, as coal companies cleared slopes or blew the tops of mountains to access the riches beneath. Researchers have found that the treeless land left behind, if not carefully restored, can increase the speed and volume of rain, making mountain flooding worse.

“Ten, 12 years ago, most of my practice represented flood victims under unrecovered strip mines,” said Ned Pillersdorf, an attorney in nearby Floyd County, also hard hit by the floods. It was hard to say at this point exactly how much that played a role in last week’s flooding, he said. But he added, “Fly over here and see how many unrecovered comic mines are left.”

This week, people in the region worked long, tiring days, clearing debris with excavators, cooking meals for each other, handing out pitchers of water, building makeshift bridges and sheltering new homeless neighbors.

But the work ahead was almost unfathomably discouraging. Across the region, small communities remained isolated on the other side of faded bridges, thousands suffered a sweltering summer heat without electricity, and thousands more were cut off from water. Emergency services were still searching the wreckage in the remote valleys as officials warned the already grim death toll was likely to rise.

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Zach Weinberg lives a few hundred yards from a family that lost four children to the floods. For the past few days, he has been traveling from home to home in Knott County to replace flood-damaged gas meters for his family business. Some customers have told him not to worry, he said. They’re not coming back.

More people are likely to make this decision once they realize how long and difficult the recovery will be, said Mr. Weinberg. And as they go, they take tax revenues with them, leaving local governments with even less money.

“It will be a partial government doing what they can, which won’t be much,” Mr Weinberg said.

There are people and groups in the mountains — like Appalshop, the Whitesburg arts and cultural organization badly damaged by the floods — who have been working for years to turn eastern Kentucky into a thriving region that no longer relies on coal mines. . Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear is already talking to lawmakers about a substantial flood relief package, and the FEMA administrator has promised to help in recovery “as long as you need us”.

But unless Congress gives people extra money to rebuild or replace their homes — a process that could take years, if at all — many flood victims will have to rely on savings, charities or other help they can find. And many ask how much is left to keep.

On Tuesday, Bill Rose, 64, was slowly shoveling mud mounds outside the garage in Fleming-Neon, where he and his brother like to tinker with old cars. Like so many others, he spoke about the resilience people must have to live here. He said he was determined to stay.

“You build back,” he said.

But he made it clear that he was talking about himself. His children are not.

He was grateful when his daughter left to work as a nurse closer to Louisville, Kentucky. She loved it here, but there was nothing for her – no jobs, no opportunities, nothing to do. After last week’s disaster, there was even less.

“My generation,” said Mr. Rose, “will probably be the last generation.”

The post How Coal Mining and Years of Neglect Left Kentucky Towns at the Grace of Floods appeared first on New York Times.

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