Workers are Essential for Rebuilding after Historic Flooding in Eastern Kentucky
Recovering from an emergency event is accomplished in phases—and with many hands. Seeing the many pressing needs of the area, one eastern Kentucky nonprofit realized that more staffing was part of the solution and took action.
At the end of July 2022, a series of storms blew through eastern Kentucky. Over five days, the area received more than a foot of rain. The region's terrain—steep, stony mountains with no soil to absorb water—only quickened the flow of the sudden excess rainfall, and flash floods swept the area. The result was devastating. Nearly 40 people lost their lives, thousands were displaced from their homes, and hundreds of businesses were destroyed across a swath of the Appalachian counties of Breathitt, Perry, Knott, and Letcher.
After the flooding, the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky focused on rebuilding communities and getting resources into the hands that needed them most. The foundation distributed more than $7.4 million in total grants, providing 7,650 grants to individuals and families and supporting more than 21,000 children and adults with direct cash aid.
But distributing aid, even months after the disaster, is only the beginning. "Disaster relief experts break an emergency event into three phases: the first is emergency response, the second is relief, and the final phase is rebuilding," said Scott McReynolds, executive director of the Housing Development Alliance, Inc. (HDA), a nonprofit affordable housing developer. HDA serves four counties in rural southeastern Kentucky, three of which—Breathitt, Knott, and Perry—were some of the hardest-hit counties in the region. The people they serve struggled before the flooding; now, many are left with nothing.
It took months, but the region is now in that final phase: the rebuild stage. In December 2022, Gerry Roll, CEO of the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, said, "the rebuilding process has just started. There was a lot of clean-up work to do before rebuilding."
Though rebuilding efforts have begun, many people are still not living in safe situations. Muck-filled homes had to be gutted after the flooding. And though repairs are not complete—in fact, some have not even been started—people with no alternative housing were forced to move back into their homes. Without proper ventilation, the homes are growing mold.
Three to four hundred people live in FEMA temporary housing, with many families doubling up. Some people remain in hotels. Others live in campers or tents, and some are spending the winter in state parks. There is no shortage of need: Though there is funding to rebuild 20 houses and 8 are under contract, 2,000 housing units are needed.
Many outside organizations are trying to assist, but coordination can be a challenge. Long-term recovery groups are set up, but next steps can be unclear. Disaster case management is essential, and the area is short on disaster case managers. Currently, 5,000 people are in need of disaster case managers to manage claims: there are just eight case managers.
Seeing the many pressing needs of the area—and realizing that more staffing could help alleviate some of the challenges—the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, Inc. (EKCEP) sprang into action. The nonprofit workforce development agency headquartered in Hazard, Kentucky, created the EKY FLOOD (Finding Local Opportunities for Overcoming Disaster) program to fund wages for those who are helping the region recover from the flood. Individuals participating in cleanup and humanitarian efforts can be funded for as many as 12 months. And for residents of eastern Kentucky who have been volunteering or who want to work on recovery efforts, paid positions are available. The EKY FLOOD program will cover the wages of workers providing the following disaster relief services:
- Clean-up and recovery efforts, including demolishing, cleaning, and reconstructing damaged structures and lands.
- Humanitarian assistance, including distributing food, water, and other supplies.
- Identifying specific needs within communities and facilitating processes for individuals to receive assistance.
- Providing outreach to determine individual needs related to public health and safety.
EKCEP serves the citizens of 23 Appalachian coalfield counties—13 have been identified as having sustained substantial damage from the floods. Staff members with EKCEP are working with partner organizations to determine where relief workers employed under EKY FLOOD can be most effectively employed.
"The flooding our region experienced was unprecedented and resulted in a tremendous amount of loss for so many people," said EKCEP executive director Jeff Whitehead. "The work to recover and rebuild began that day but will remain ongoing for some time. This new program will help ensure that we have workers in place to get people and businesses back on their feet as quickly as possible."
The views expressed in this report are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland or the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.