by Pauletta Hansel
I awoke Thursday morning, July 28, 2022, in my safe and comfortable house and, as I am wont to do, opened up my Facebook app. That week I was living vicariously through my writer friends who made the pilgrimage to Hindman Settlement School’s annual Appalachian Writers Workshop, which I’ve attended on and off since 1980. My friends’ and colleagues’ posts of the widespread flooding in Hindman and throughout my home region of southeastern Kentucky left me breathless and heartbroken. It has been difficult to turn my mind to anything else, and there is so little that I can do: Bear witness. Send money. Encourage others to help in whatever way they can.
Thus, I am taking over this week’s blog post with some personal accounts of what, in the words of my cousin and fellow writer, Kelli Hansel Haywood, is a situation “worse than folks can imagine.”
I’m going to start out with how you can help. There are a number of funds and donation opportunities, and Appalshop, in Letcher County, Kentucky, has done a fantastic job of pulling together a resource list. You can find it here: https://appalshop.org/news/appalachian-flood-support-resources. They are updating it all the time. If you want just one place, I’m going to suggest the
Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky Appalachian Crisis Fund – also accessible at bit.ly/AppCrisisAid. This is not to discourage you from donating to any of the other funds and organizations: the needs are vast, and all help is welcome.
If you are a reader (and you’ve read this far, so I’m going to say you are) then I encourage you to participate in the fundraiser offered by our good friends at Downbound Books. You may remember they co-sponsored the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition’s virtual Don’t Cry for Us J.D. Vance, A Reading by Ohio Appalachian Authors and they have a really wonderful selection of books by Appalachian writers—and just about any other sort of book you might want. Downbound Books will be donating all profits from the sale of in-stock items on Wednesday 8/3 to the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky Appalachian Crisis Fund. If you can’t make it to the store to shop in person at 4139 Apple St. in Northside, they offer inexpensive shipping via their webstore at downboundbooks.com. To support the fundraiser online, look for items labeled “in store” or use the “What’s in store” browse filter.
Roberta Schultz, my friend and fellow writer, and a UACC artist, was one of the people who made those Thursday morning Facebook posts from Hindman, Kentucky. I asked her for a first-person account.
“The rain started in earnest after midnight, pounding heavy on the roof. By 1:00 am, the flash flood watch alerts on our phones included the wording ‘do not travel unless you are being evacuated.’ The sudden complete darkness and alerts brought many folks out of their rooms to discuss our situation. In the meantime, the alerts had changed to ‘Severe Emergency, Life Endangering.’ At 3:00 am, many of us were looking out windows or huddling on the back porch trying to figure out why there were so many lights below us. What we thought was the power company trying to hook up the damaged lines turned out to be our fellow participants being evacuated from flooded quarters and moving their cars to higher ground.
By daylight, we could see water covering The Settlement School’s parking lot and the ground on either side of the Mullins Building. The bridge over Troublesome was submerged into what looked like a lake stretching toward the library. A white pick-up truck belonging to one of our participants, was half submerged and pinned against a tree behind the main building. One-by-one we decided to get dressed and find out what had happened. Melissa kept us updated with texts to Chrissie, so we soon knew that gas tanks had ruptured into the water supply, and that the water was no longer safe to drink. Not long after, the water was shut off. Down the hill, most of the cars from the upper parking lot were smashed together next door, a police officer talking with each owner. As the water receded from the bridge leading out of campus, the staff started coordinating our exit. Most us of reported a circuitous route home, passing heartbreaking flood damage and large debris in every county leading out, east and west. We arrived home to learn of the rising numbers of reported deaths.”
Roberta also wrote me, “I left out the part where some of my housemates were taking about living wills, packing up only what we needed to save, rationing our three jugs of water, and whether or not we could survive on Chrissie’s Cheetos stash. Honestly, that kinda kept me going, that little bit of Cheeto survival talk.”
Hindman Settlement School has since been a safe haven for the surrounding community. Among other things (including working desperately to save their archives), they are: “providing meals three times a day from our kitchen, to anyone who needs to be fed. This includes people seeking shelter on campus, the volunteers here to support the relief and recovery effort, and anyone else who is hungry. A team of volunteers is working hard in the kitchen in very challenging conditions. It will likely be two weeks before our community has running water. We are grateful for the donation of water tanks so we can wash dishes, and clean the dining room after meals.” You can support Hindman Settlement School’s efforts here.
This morning, I made a call to my brother’s former teacher, Janie Griffith, who still lives in our hometown of Jackson, Kentucky, in Breathitt County. “It’s like a war zone here,” Ms. Griffith reports. “It looks like we’ve been bombed.” Ms. Griffith counts herself among the lucky ones, as the dam around Panbowl Lake has held. She has water and electricity—things for which her extended family around the county are most grateful. “If you can’t help your own family, what good are you?” Ms. Griffith asked.
Her sense is that the people in outlying areas are likely to be hurting for a long time. Jackson itself should get utilities back soon, but returning water and other services throughout the county may take months, due to the extensive piping underneath roads that have now been destroyed. Older people and families who still have homes are stranded without safe water, electricity, or means of cooking what food they have. Roads have been washed out, and supplies can only be delivered by ATV and on foot. Those who made it to emergency shelters are at greater risk for Covid now, as they are housed in places such as gyms.
Ms. Griffith told the story of one family who evacuated their home and horse farm to higher wearing their pajamas. They came back to find no house, and the animals huddled and battered, but safe. In exploring the outbuildings, the husband broke through the flooring and was severely injured. They did get him to the hospital, but he is now suffering sepsis.
Obviously, the needs in Breathitt County, as throughout eastern Kentucky, are multi-faceted and immense. Ms. Griffith focused on the need for supplies and shelter for individuals, and encouraged us not to forget the needs of young children, such as formula and diapers, and also the animals who have also lost homes. She suggested tents for the homeless and bedding for those in shelters. You can find information about how to help with immediate needs at Appalshop’s afore-mentioned resource page: https://appalshop.org/news/appalachian-flood-support-resources. Most organizations list specific items requested.
I also want to acknowledge Appalshop’s immense losses, including to their archives, their public radio station and their offices. They are a vital resource to our community. Their support link is https://appalshop.salsalabs.org/AppalshopGeneralGiving/index.html. Appalshop wrote on their website: “Our recovery begins, and it will take weeks, months, even years in some cases. When the floodwaters first receded, we discovered that our apple tree that’s planted on the grounds beside our beloved shop was still standing with its young roots intact. Despite record floodwaters of over twenty feet, our little apple tree still stands, bearing fruit and hope.”
It is difficult to see the way out of this catastrophe for southeastern Kentucky. It is an already hard-hit community hit even harder. There’s a lot more to say about why this happens—centuries of mismanagement of resources by extractive industries and our current climate change crisis chief among them. (See writer/activist Mandi Fugate Sheffel’s editorial here). But any way forward clearly has to do with both that little apple tree, and with Ms. Griffith’s statement about family and help. As all who have been part of an Appalachian community is likely to know, whether the community is Cincinnati’s Lower Price Hill or Hindman, Kentucky: everybody is family, and everybody has got to help.
Cover photo credit: The American Red Cross
Pauletta Hansel is a poet, teacher and Core Member of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition. She came to Cincinnati from eastern Kentucky in 1979.