Flooding Hits American Towns

The unprecedented storms in the mountains of eastern Kentucky last summer illustrated a growing and often overlooked threat that scientists say is exacerbated by climate change: severe flooding across swaths of the inland U.S. 

Source: WSJ | Published on June 19, 2023

Flooding in American towns

In nearly four decades living here, Kasey Wright had never seen the North Fork of the Kentucky River flood her neighborhood at the water’s edge. Then last July, thunderstorms unleashed a deluge, sending a torrent of water 6 feet high through her home.

Nearly a year later, Wright, her husband, John, and their 12-year-old son are in limbo. The family is crammed into her parents’ house a mile away, awaiting word on whether their application for a Federal Emergency Management Agency buyout of the property is approved. They are leaning toward moving to Tennessee, prodded by their town’s longstanding economic challenges, which the flooding compounded.

“You wonder what’s going to be left here,” said John Wright, 41 years old. “I think a lot of people will leave.”

The unprecedented storms in the mountains of eastern Kentucky last summer illustrated a growing and often overlooked threat that scientists say is exacerbated by climate change: severe flooding across swaths of the inland U.S.

By one measure, Letcher County, Ky., where the Wrights live, has the largest hidden flood risk in the U.S.

The storms last summer dumped as much as 16 inches of rain over a five-day period, according to the National Weather Service, causing flooding that resulted in at least 44 deaths and swept away homes, bridges and other infrastructure. Scientists said it was a 1,000-year storm, or one with a 0.1% chance of occurring in a given year.

Just as stronger hurricanes are changing the economic and demographic profile of some coastal communities, the mounting risks of extreme weather in parts of the country’s interior are poised to reshape regions like Letcher County. They are confronting residents with an existential question: Can they afford to stay and protect themselves against the threat, or do they need to relocate to safer ground?

Because of the way FEMA analyzes flood hazards, the agency underestimates risks in some areas, especially in central Appalachia, said Jeremy Porter, head of climate implications research at First Street Foundation, a nonprofit research group known for quantifying climate risks, including flooding.

In determining so-called special flood-hazard areas, FEMA focuses on variables such as coastal storm surge and large rivers, not accounting for factors including precipitation and small streams. Yet those factors—which First Street includes in its model—are the main causes of flooding in Appalachia, where the mountainous topography sends rainfall streaming down hillsides and into networks of small waterways, Porter said.

“There are only varying degrees of flood risk, and if you currently reside outside a [special flood-hazard area], you are still at risk for flooding,” a FEMA spokesman said. He added that the agency is moving toward a graduated depiction of risk that can better capture potential flooding scenarios.

While some climatologists and floodplain managers consider First Street’s approach a useful complement to FEMA’s, they caution that it isn’t a replacement for the agency’s maps.

First Street’s model, developed with researchers at other institutions such as Columbia University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found parts of Appalachia have the biggest hidden flood risk in the U.S.—defined as the gap between First Street’s risk assessment and FEMA’s.

Letcher County, which has a population of about 21,000, has the nation’s largest risk, along with Virginia’s Buchanan County, according to First Street. Among the 20 counties in the U.S. with the most hidden flood risk, eight are in eastern Kentucky.

The region is poorly equipped to deal with the problem. Eastern Kentucky has experienced decades of population loss due to the decline of the coal industry and the dearth of business investment to fill the void. With a meager tax base and limited state and federal funding, officials lack money for infrastructure such as flood walls and elevated roads. Few homeowners can afford to safeguard a housing stock with many old and vulnerable structures.

The Wrights’ neighborhood, known as Upper Bottom, has long been one of Whitesburg’s most attractive areas, with tidy, well-appointed homes. The flooding engulfed every property along four streets.

On a recent visit, debris from the disaster remained piled high in front of some homes. Several damaged houses were torn down, leaving empty lots. Some were in varying states of reconstruction, while others sat empty and ruined.

Ashley Cornett and her boyfriend and two children fled the home they rented in the neighborhood as the water rose last July, destroying virtually all their belongings. Weeks later, they moved to Lexington, Ky., about 150 miles away, in part so her older son, whose school was damaged by the flooding, could enroll in classes for the fall.

Cornett, 39, had been saving money to buy a house in Whitesburg, which had limited housing options even before the storms. “The flood obviously killed any potential for that,” she said. “There’s still nowhere to live back there…We will likely just stay in central Kentucky.”

Down the street from Cornett’s old rental, Libby Honeycutt and her husband own two properties. Honeycutt’s sister, who is partially incapacitated, lived in one of the houses and had to be rescued by kayak during the flooding as the water rose to her chest.

Her sister suffered two heart attacks amid the stress, and after receiving treatment at a hospital, moved to Mississippi to stay with one of her daughters, Honeycutt said, adding that her sibling has no plans to return.

Honeycutt and her husband tore down the home where her sister lived but are rebuilding their own, which took on more than 5 feet of water, she said. They gutted the downstairs and replaced flooring, drywall, cabinets and appliances. They are largely financing repairs themselves, since they had no flood insurance—which they didn’t buy because the area hadn’t flooded for as long as they could remember. A FEMA disaster-assistance payment of $37,500, along with smaller sums of aid, covered only a fraction of the costs.

“This 1,000-year flood could happen again,” said Honeycutt, 67. “We’re having a lot of weather that we never had before.”

Though weather patterns fluctuate, the trend line over decades is clear: greater annual precipitation and stronger storms that are unloading more rainfall, said Austin Pearson, a climatologist at the Midwestern Regional Climate Center, a program between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Purdue University.

A federally funded study showed a dramatic increase in the rain falling in major storm events from 1901 to 2016 in both the Midwest and the Southeast.

“There’s still a lot that we don’t know, but data that we are seeing now points to this being linked to climate change,” Pearson said.

Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee have experienced among the largest increases in precipitation, according to NOAA.

The increased flooding risk confronts not only poor areas of Appalachia but also parts of eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina and Virginia that have been drawing affluent retirees and others.

In eastern Kentucky, several days of heavy rain in 2021 generated the worst flooding some areas had experienced in more than 50 years, according to the National Weather Service. That was followed by last year’s downpour, which caused the North Fork in Whitesburg to blow past the previous flooding record of nearly 15 feet in 1957 and reach 21 feet before the flood gauge failed. Another bout of flooding hit Letcher County in February.

Amid steep, hilly terrain, most homes in Letcher County sit in flatlands beside creeks now more prone to swell. Many buildings aren’t sufficiently elevated to ensure their safety in the event of a flood.

More than 2,100 homes in Letcher County—about 25% of the total occupied housing units—were damaged in last year’s flooding, according to a study by the Ohio River Valley Institute and Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center. Only about 4% of the damaged homes in the county had flood insurance, said Eric Dixon, one of the report authors. Many residents find the cost—roughly $1,200 a year on average in Kentucky, according to the report—too steep, and long considered it unnecessary since most homes lie outside flood-hazard areas.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development pledged nearly $300 million in disaster recovery funding for affected areas. The state of Kentucky has allocated more than $200 million for housing, infrastructure repairs and other needs.

Homeowners in Letcher County filed 146 applications for FEMA property buyouts, yet many are awaiting approvals from the agency. The property buyouts are part of a FEMA program that provides funding to relocate people out of flood zones and turn the property into greenspace.

Homes, a nonprofit housing developer, has drawn on foundation grants and other funding to kickstart rebuilding, said executive director Seth Long. It completed 10 homes and has another three under construction in Letcher County, and is employing flood-mitigation measures such as elevating structures. Yet those projects address only a small fraction of the area’s needs.

Hattie Joan Reed and her husband, whose home at the edge of the North Fork took on 5 feet of water, initially thought of moving away, but didn’t want to leave their adult children. They looked for other homes, but couldn’t afford what few offerings they found.

So they decided to rebuild their place, putting about $90,000 into the effort, mainly through a combination of FEMA disaster assistance and credit-card debt. They couldn’t afford the $30,000 to $40,000 cost of elevating their home, nor the $30,000 it would take to reinforce the river bank on their property, which is steadily deteriorating each time it rains.

“Seeing how the erosion is coming up so fast, we think we probably made a bad mistake,” said Reed, 72.

Local officials in Whitesburg are struggling to pay for repairs. FEMA provides disaster assistance, but the town has to pay up front for projects, then seek reimbursement—a challenge for a cash-strapped government.

Whitesburg has shelled out roughly $500,000 to remove debris, put in new culverts and replace damaged water and sewer pipes, among other work, said Chris Caudill, the city administrative assistant. It will cost another $400,000 to re-asphalt roads, requiring the city to take out a loan, he said.

The city was able to reallocate money for some expenses from the current fiscal-year budget, said Mayor Tiffany Craft. But she worries that the town will have even less to work with next fiscal year, which begins July 1, because of resident departures and FEMA buyouts that will further shrink the tax base.

Among the mitigation measures local officials say the pledged government funding could cover: a housing initiative, backed by Gov. Andy Beshear, that includes building a multi-unit subdivision on flat, higher ground in Letcher County.

Some flood-prone areas may have to be declared uninhabitable, said Jeffery Justice, executive director of Pine Mountain Partnership, an economic-development organization for Letcher County. “We have to make some tough decisions,” he said.

The town of Fleming-Neon, also in Letcher County, is grappling with the ravages of the flooding. A wall of water surged through downtown and damaged businesses, some of which remain boarded up. The flooding decimated Fleming-Neon’s sewer system, sending wastewater into many residents’ yards. The city has made emergency repairs, but the system needs a complete overhaul to become fully functional.

James Hall, whose trailer home at the edge of a creek was totaled, is trying to rebuild with $22,000 he received from FEMA. A friend gave him a beat-up trailer that he put behind his old one, farther from the creek, and he is using his carpentry, electrical and plumbing skills to fix it up. He plans to elevate it about 3 feet—roughly the height floodwaters reached in his previous place—by jacking it up on concrete piers.

Hall, 53, hasn’t considered leaving. “I love this place,” he said. “Ain’t nothing here, but it’s home.”

Down the street, Tracie King is trying to revive her business, King’s Korner Vendors Mall, which sells a range of products, from clothing to cleaning supplies. The flooding destroyed a warehouse’s worth of merchandise and left waist-high mud in the building that she and a string of volunteers slowly cleared out. King, 51, said she had no flood insurance and failed to qualify for a Small Business Administration loan because of poor credit. She reopened in February, helped by suppliers who she said advanced her merchandise.

“If it floods again, I better wash away with it,” she said. “I don’t know if I can do it again.”