|Logo for WEKU series|
The record flash flooding in Eastern Kentucky last July has prompted a search for higher ground on which people can live and remain in the region. That’s one upshot of an ambitious reporting series that began on WEKU, the public radio station of Eastern Kentucky University, this week.
The “Rise” series is about present realities and future prospects in the 13 counties, host Tom Martin says: “As extreme weather seems to become more frequent, how will efforts to prevent future losses of life and property affect a mountain culture characterized by deep, strong ties to place, family and neighbors? Will enough people remain in the region to keep local tax bases above water for the resources they need to respond when crisis strikes?”
There is a strong consensus that housing is the immediate need, with many people still in temporary housing, Martin reports. Mike Harrison of First Christian Church in Pikeville, said he expects that it will take “two or three years to get people back to normal.”
With $37,000 the maximum grant avalable from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, not enough to build a home, many residents are being urged to relocate, but many don’t want to leave the region: “This is my home, my everything,” one woman said. “I just want people know we still need help, and we’re deserving people.”
From their devastated hollows, residents look up, to ridgetops and reclaimed surface coal mines, where new neighborhods could be built. But such places generally lack utilities, and most of them are owned by coal and landholding companies that have demonstrated little if any interest in making it available for housing. Kentucky River Properties, former Kentucky River Coal, is the largest landowner in the four hardest-hit counties, lawyer Joe Childers told WEKU. The company has donated $500,000 to housing-development nonoprofits that are building and rehabbing homes.
Some landowners recently donated 75 acres for a new housing development, which encouraged Gerry Roll, president of the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky: “If this gives even a handful of people in our region some hope there is a better time ahead, there is a better opportunity coming, that gives me joy.”
Gov. Andy Beshear said the state is “in active negotiations in every county” affected to find land for new housing developments, and he said Thursday that “I hope this is getting close” to announcing more “high-ground communities.” He said donations are still needed for relief and recovery.
“Rise” is produced with the help of several other newsrooms that pay attention to Appalachia.