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Kentucky's flooding victims face years of rebuilding efforts

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's been just over a month since record flooding left 39 people dead and thousands homeless in eastern Kentucky. From the Ohio Valley ReSource collaborative journalism project, Katie Myers reports that residents have years of rebuilding ahead.

KATIE MYERS, BYLINE: Laverne Fields and her family still camp by the side of the road in Millstone, Ky. In late July, a week of intense storms turned her quiet mountain stream into a raging river. Over 6 feet of water swept her trailer from its foundation.

LAVERNE FIELDS: One of the men from FEMA told us - said, you guys are tough - because they said they couldn't live like this.

MYERS: Fields says there's no help from FEMA yet. Her trailer is still in the creek, her things all over the yard. Now it's dusty, and there's little shade, and there's no relief in her camper.

FIELDS: It gets really hot in there. Me and the baby has breathing problems.

MYERS: Fields says she's on disability and needs oxygen. She runs a generator occasionally. There's no electricity or running water.

FIELDS: We bathe morning and night with wet wipes.

MYERS: Across 13 flood-ravaged counties, over 13,000 households have applied for FEMA aid, and that number is still rising. But just over half that number have been approved. There's still no official count of damaged homes or of people who are now homeless. Hundreds live in government-provided trailers, and they could be there for a long time. Kayla Morton is trying to make her peace with that.

KAYLA MORTON: We're all pretty positive about it. We understand the situation we're in.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Mommy.

MORTON: And we're OK with being here for a while.

MYERS: Morton lives with her toddler and husband in a camper in Carr Creek State Park. She passes the time by organizing activities for the kids. But she worries about them and about the cold that's coming.

MORTON: There's families here that have five and six kids living in a camper. You know, these kids are going to be stuck in here in the wintertime.

MYERS: Even those who've received aid are struggling to get cost estimates to FEMA. Contractors tell them to be patient.

DERENIA DUNBAR: They are so busy they have to put you on a list.

MYERS: Back in Millstone, the house Derenia Dunbar grew up in is stripped down to the studs, wet insulation and flooring removed. Her dad has black lung disease from years of working in the coal mines.

DUNBAR: You got to let it sit to make sure your mold don't go all the way, you know, up the stairs or anything 'cause Dad has breathing problems. We have to make sure that that is getting cleaned.

MYERS: In the town of Bulan, Terry Thies says she'll have to take out loans to rebuild the house she grew up in.

TERRY THIES: I'm 69, and I'm going to have to have a mortgage for the first time in my life.

MYERS: The house had never flooded before.

THIES: It didn't even come into the house. It never got any higher than that second step.

MYERS: Climate change means flooding here and across the country is getting more frequent and severe. Last month, Kentucky lawmakers passed a $213 million flood relief plan. It funds school districts and infrastructure repairs but not long-term housing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDY BESHEAR: I know it's hard, but this is a several-year rebuilding project.

MYERS: Governor Andy Beshear says utility crews are working as quickly as they can to restore service to areas still without water and power. Most affected schools will resume classes in late September. Hundreds more trailers are expected to arrive soon. Still, everyone interviewed for this story says they don't plan to move away.

DUNBAR: We're family here.

MYERS: For Derenia Dunbar and so many more in eastern Kentucky, connection to land and home goes back generations.

For NPR News, I'm Katie Myers in Whitesburg, Ky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Katie Myers is covering economic transition in east Kentucky for the ReSource and partner station WMMT in Whitesburg, KY. She previously worked directly with communities in Kentucky and Tennessee on environmental issues, energy democracy, and the digital divide, and is a founding member of a community-owned rural ISP. She has also worked with the Black in Appalachia project of East Tennessee PBS. In her spare time, Katie likes to write stage plays, porch sit with friends, and get lost on mountain backroads. She has published work with Inside Appalachia, Scalawag Magazine, the Daily Yonder, and Belt Magazine, among others.