jackson, ky. — Shirley Howard’s feet splashed into nearly a foot of water when she stepped out of bed on a summer morning last July amid a torrential rainfall.
A devastating flood swallowing up Kentucky’s Appalachian region had reached her bedroom in the night. The family grabbed their dogs and fled their brick bungalow in Jackson as the water eventually 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, have been living in a cramped trailer provided by the state. At least 100 other families are living in trailers and hundreds more remain displaced, living with relatives or in damaged homes while they rebuild.
“I am so dying to go home every day,” the 65-year-old Howard said.
Howard’s house and nearly 9,000 others in 13 counties were severely damaged or destroyed by the intense four-day storm that dumped up to 16 inches of rain in eastern Kentucky. The fast-rising waters shoved homes off foundations, blocked roadways and submerged mountain towns under several feet of muddy water. Thousands like Howard had to grab what they could and flee. More than 40 people died.
It was one of the worst floods in Kentucky’s history, ravaging one of the poorest places in the country. Homeowners in the mountainous region settled by coal miners a century ago live in flood-prone valleys that offer the only flat land for building homes, an area already suffering a housing crisis before the flood hit.
Disaster recovery in poor areas like this stretch of eastern Kentucky presents a host of challenges for victims who already faced setbacks before flood waters rushed inside their homes. A single inch of water inside a house can cause more than $26,000 in damage, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“There’s food insecurity, there’s lack of affordable housing, there’s lack of access to resources ... and those things are just exacerbated after a disaster,” said Sally Ray, director of domestic funds for the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, which helps guide private donations after disasters.
The challenges in Kentucky are replicated in disasters that strike poor areas nationwide. Low-income families can’t qualify for disaster loans, and conflicting rules and separate thresholds for an array of federal aid can slow and complicate recovery, according to national experts.
“They’re still recovering from Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana,” Ray said of that 2005 disaster, which flooded most of New Orleans.
For a region with longstanding poverty and housing issues, Kentucky’s massive flood plunged thousands of homeowners — nearly all without flood insurance — into a deeper crisis. One study estimates it could cost nearly $1 billion to recover the region’s housing losses.
“We had a housing crisis before the flood hit,” 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, since they didn’t have flood insurance, which can cost hundreds of dollars a month.
“It was just too much for us,” Shirley Howard said.
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