Their family home is flood-prone. Flood insurance is too expensive.
Some Eastern Kentucky flood survivors rebuild without adequate federal help
About 40 travel trailers sit in a lot along Lakeside Drive in Jackson on Dec. 20. Some have lived here for months. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Arden Barnes)
JACKSON — Last time she checked, flood insurance would cost Carolyn Combs and husband Lou about $1,100 per month.
That was before the 2021 and 2022 floods swept through her family’s home in Jackson, destroying everything inside.
“I couldn’t imagine what it is now,” Combs told the Kentucky Lantern in mid-December. “But I already work two jobs. That’s three car payments. I can’t.”
According to the United States Census Bureau, the median household income in Breathitt County was $32,259 in 2021, roughly $20,000 less than the statewide median. That income comes out to about $670 a week.
A family making that salary and charged that amount for flood insurance would need to be able to devote about 41% of their income for that coverage.
Combs said it was her family’s lack of the expensive flood insurance that the the Federal Emergency Management Agency – better known as FEMA – cited as the reason for not assisting them financially in 2021 and 2022.
A FEMA spokesperson has not yet responded to a request for comment. The FEMA website, however, says the agency cannot duplicate benefits that insurance covers.
The Combs’ experience may not represent everyone’s experience. In September FEMA reported that a flood insurance policy in Kentucky with the National Flood Insurance Program costs on average $1,174 a year, or roughly $98 a month. The cost varies based on the amount of coverage, deductible chosen and the flood risk or flood zone of the insured property, according to the FEMA release.
The Combs did not get the help they needed from the government, Carolyn said. But local nonprofits stepped up.
Neighbors, as well as national and Appalachian organizations, helped them get drywall, insulation, new flooring and more.
You don't leave home. You fix it, and you go back.
– Carolyn Combs, flood survivor and Jackson, Kentucky, resident.
A flood-prone lot
Lou’s grandparents built the original home back in the 1980s. It flooded that same decade for the first of four times while they’ve had it.
The family rebuilt higher, hoping the water wouldn’t reach them again. It did, though, in 2009. Then in 2021, and most recently in 2022.
Carolyn’s mother fell sick with COVID-19 right as the 2021 floods came. Mere months later, her mom died. And Carolyn lost all her belongings, including the clothes in the closet that still smelled of her.
“Everything that I had of hers from her funeral or that was hers personally, it’s all gone,” she said. “I didn’t get to save anything” except her mom’s Bible, she added.
She also lost all her daughter’s sports jerseys and old t-shirts. She’d planned to make them into a quilt to celebrate Maddie’s graduation next year.
Despite losing everything over and over, the Combs will stay in Jackson.
“People will say, ‘Well, I wouldn’t go back if I was you. I’d just go somewhere else,’” Carolyn said. “And I’m like, ‘you don’t leave home. You fix it, and you go back. Every step you get done is closer than what you were when you first started…you don’t leave home.’”
The family is painting their newly-replaced drywall and hoping to move back in by next summer.
“We’ll get back home hopefully a little bit after spring,” Carolyn said. “I was hoping sooner but I don’t think the weather is going to cooperate.”
Months in a travel trailer
Paul and Carrie, who declined to share their last name, have lived in travel trailers for three months.
The couple, who lived in a camper on land that’s been in the family since the 1970s, didn’t flood in 2021. The 2022 floods did not concern them at first. Water had never come close to flooding their family land. They also didn’t have cable TV or cell service and didn’t know the forecast.
They just went to bed like any other night, they said. When they awoke, the floors were wet.
“It was raining,” Carrie remembered. “We thought we had a leak in the roof.” They got to work trying to find tarps for the roof and dry up the floor.
“I don’t think it dawned on us that it was coming up through the floor,” Carrie said. They stayed there for about a month while they tried to salvage what they could.
Finally, when their mattress turned black with mold, they knew they had to leave.
They said they stayed first at a temporary RV park in Hazard for a month then in Jackson for the past two. Their trailer is one of about 40 in the Jackson lot.
FEMA approved them for some help, Paul said, but they needed to find the physical title for their camper. That took a long time, and now they wait for processing.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Paul, a National Guard veteran, said. The couple feels pressure to leave the temporary trailer, but they don’t have anywhere to go. Police patrol around the RV park, he and Carried said, and a staff member wears a gun, which the couple says feels threatening and disrespectful.
A Kentucky Emergency Management spokesperson said staff do not open carry and that some residents at this park had requested more police presence.
“We don’t want to be here any more than anybody else does,” Carrie said.
The couple does not plan to stay in the area. Once they get enough money together to buy a travel RV, they’re going to leave and travel the country.
Eyes on the government, legislature
Breathitt County locals say there’s a real need for road repair in the floodplains and surrounding areas. Water washed away blacktop and gravel, making it difficult for some to get in and out of their land.
Some say they want to see more dollars allocated to fix the roads and other infrastructure damaged by the floods.
“It’s going to cost a lot,” said Wallace Caleb Bates, who is from Jackson and sits on the board of Aspire Appalachia. “You’re dealing with curvy roads, roads that naturally weather very easily because they’re either really low and near the water or they’re really high . . . it concerns me that, because there’s been this recent push surrounding infrastructure, that it won’t be considered for . . . flood stricken counties.”
Bates also said he’d like to see housing funding be a “major focus” of the 2023 legislative session.
“When you talk about economics, you look at housing,” he said. “When you look at housing, you look at jobs . . . it’s so broad, that no one person can fix it. It’s going to take years worth of fixing.”
But, there is concern among him and his friends that lawmakers don’t see enough potential return on investment when it comes to rebuilding Appalachian communities. That thought hurts.
At least one legislator, Sen. Brandon Smith, is determined to invest in the area properly.
Smith, who represents Breathitt County and other areas in Eastern Kentucky, recently told the Lantern that such investment in the area must happen before people leave.
“We’re going to reinvest back in your community because we believe this community is going to grow and not just die on the vine like every other coal town down here, just kind of to be forgotten to history,” Smith said while distributing water to people recently in Letcher County, a nearby neighbor of Breathitt. “We’re not letting that happen. I’m certainly not gonna let that happen on my watch.”
“Our whole country was built on the backs of people from Eastern Kentucky,” said Mandi Fugate Sheffel, who owns the Read Spotted Newt bookstore in Hazard and lives in Breathitt County. “Coal fueled the Industrial Revolution, and we continue to get sh*t on and sh*t on and sh*t on.”
This story has been updated with new information about flood insurance costs and with a correction.
Reporter McKenna Horsley contributed to this report.
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