After the Floods, Eastern Kentucky Ponders What Was Lost

With hundreds of houses damaged or even washed away, a question looms in parts of the region: How many families who persevered there for generations will now leave for good?

LOST CREEK, Ky. — On the night of the flash floods, Vanessa Baker was last seen on her front porch, the place where cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents would gather in the evenings after supper, talking as twilight settled into the hollow.

But on that terrifying night in late July, the porch was suddenly looking out on a ravenous sea. Ms. Baker, a 60-year-old school secretary, was clutching the hands of her husband and brother-in-law when they were pulled under the dark floodwaters. Three months later, the official list of the missing, once running to the hundreds, has been whittled to only her name.

“We’ve held out hope and held out hope,” said one of Ms. Baker’s nephews, Anthony Mullins, 40, the pastor of a nearby church. But he knew how long it had been.

The accounting of all that has been lost in the hollows and valleys of eastern Kentucky since that last week of July, when torrential rains turned quiet creeks into raging rivers in a matter of minutes, runs on and on.

Of the hundreds of homes wrecked by the floods, many were washed away completely, including three in the clearing where Ms. Baker lived alongside members of her extended family. Bridgette Fugate, who lived just up the creek for 46 years, lost her home; so did Anita Fay Henson, as well as her former sister-in-law, Sherry Mullins, whose house was ripped apart along with a large chunk of the creek bank itself, land her family had lived on since the 1700s. Ms. Henson’s oldest daughter is gone, too, one of 43 deaths that officials have attributed to the flooding.

The destruction wrought by coastal hurricanes often raises difficult questions about the sustainability of American growth, most pointedly whether in the age of climate change, people should keep flocking to new beachfront homes or subdivisions in seaside boom towns. But the floods in Kentucky poured into valleys where families had lived for generations, places that fueled the country’s growth when the coal mines were going strong but have since been largely left behind. And the looming question is how many of those who had persevered here will now decide to leave for good, with no one coming to replace them.

“When I was a kid, there was a small town right here,” said Wade Neace, 59, a former coal miner, gesturing to a part of the highway where the little community called Lost Creek once sat. Over years of post office closures and consolidations, Lost Creek has come to refer to a broad expanse of southern Breathitt County, including the place where Ms. Baker lived some 10 miles away. Now, even remnants of the old Lost Creek are gone. “The only house that was left here, the flood just washed away,” Mr. Neace said.

The scattering of the population throughout the hills helps explain why so many were initially counted as missing; most were found in the days following the floods, stranded in valleys cut off by collapsed bridges or sunken roads, or staying with family elsewhere in the mountains.

The population in southeastern Kentucky is older and much smaller than it was during the heyday of coal and timber. Good jobs are scarce, housing is hard to come by, and infrastructure, starved of a tax base, is in dire shape.

But the determination to stay, even among people who barely survived the floods, is fierce. Many people who reluctantly left to find work in recent years had every intention of coming back to the communities that had reared them, having held onto sturdy family homes that were legacies of a more prosperous past.

The return of older people after careers spent somewhere else had been keeping the population in Breathitt County stable, said Stephen D. Bowling, the director of the county library, who can trace his local roots to the 1780s. Now many of those old family homes are in ruins — “the washing away of the coal palaces,” Mr. Bowling said — sitting along roads still lined with flood-mangled cars and mobile homes perched at odd angles in the trees. Even the land itself now seems unfamiliar.

“The creek that raised me is the creek that about killed us,” said Heather Robertson, 35, a daughter of Anita Fay Henson. Ms. Robertson had to flee to higher ground with three children, including a 5-week-old, when the waters began to encircle her home.

This feeling of betrayal runs to the industry that once sustained the region. Dozens of people in Lost Creek, many of whom were raised by coal miners or worked in the mines themselves, are suing the companies that operate an large surface mine on the mountaintops above their communities. The suit argues that stripping the hillsides bare for drilling and making paltry efforts at reclamation — returning the land to its former shape — substantially contributed to the ferocity of the flooding in the valleys below.

The coal companies denied having worsened the degree of destruction from what they described in a court filing as a “historic rainfall event,” arguing that the plaintiffs “assumed the risk, and their damages were unforeseeable.”

Jack Spadaro, a former federal mining regulator who has been involved in numerous suits over strip mining’s role in flood damage, dismissed this defense. “There is no question that mining was a major factor in the severity of flooding,” he said.

Still, the mine resumed operating after the floods — posting the required notices that there would be drilling in the area even on the ruins of flood-wrecked homes. And national attention to the flooding in Kentucky has largely moved on.

Local reviews of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s performance in the wake of the floods are mixed, with some people expressing satisfaction with the assistance they got and others furious about what they see as trivial settlement amounts — or outright rejections. So far, FEMA has paid out $80 million to flood victims, and the state legislature passed a $213 million relief package in late August. But local officials say the help is nowhere near enough for a place that was already barely hanging on in the first place.

“There’s so many people that are in such financial situations, I don’t see how they’re going to recover,” said Hargis Epperson, the Breathitt County coroner. “They don’t have the resources.”

As winter approaches and a deep cold has already begun settling into the valleys at night, some flood survivors are still sleeping in tents. Others are living in trailers, rationing costly propane for space heaters. The county has opened a warming shelter, and the local museum has been giving out hundreds of quilts as part of a regionwide effort.

But the plan for most of those who remain in Lost Creek is what it has always been, which is to rely on kin. Pastor Mullins said that his uncle, Ms. Baker’s husband, was living with one of his sons in Hazard, Ky., about 15 miles away. He was hoping to find a home somewhere nearby, Pastor Mullins said, but nobody who was on the porch with Ms. Baker on the night of the floods was planning to return to that clearing in the hollow where family members had lived side by side for generations.

“That part of the community is gone,” Pastor Mullins said.

A few miles away, in the shadow of an old drive-in movie screen, Dot Prater is living in a pop-up camper right next to her flood-damaged home.

She believes that a lot of people who left the area after the floods might never return, “afraid that the water will come back.” And even many of those who do stay in the mountains will now be scattered, evicted by the floods from places where they had long lived and thought they always would. Ms. Prater, 70, insisted she would not be satisfied anywhere other than Lost Creek. “That’s home to me,” she said.

But still, it is not quite the same.

“I picked up my granddaughter the other day,” Ms. Prater said, “and I said to her, ‘Ah, things look so strange now, don’t it, honey?’”

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