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Constance Alexander: Recent flooding inspires poetry, wreaks havoc and spawns teamwork

The litany of devastation in Eastern Kentucky has a cadence all its own:

Quicksand, Bulan, Neon, Hiner, Martin, Fisty, Hueysville, Stringtown, Ajax, Isom, Pinetop, Dwarf, Nix Branch, Jakes Branch, Trot, Caney, Possum, Ary, Lost Creek, Hardburly, Trace, Hindman, Buckhorn, Chavis, Krypton, Garrett, Pound, Kite, Whitesburg, Rowdy, Wayland, Noble’s Landing, Cowan Creek, Pigeon Roost.

Writer Pauletta Hansel wove names of some of the stricken communities into her stunning poem about the recent floods, using direct quotes from social media posts about the recent deadly flooding in southeastern Kentucky. In a footnote she explained her approach: “Appalachia tends to hit the news briefly, if at all, during disasters, and is soon forgotten. If you haven’t heard of any of these places, you’d better get on Facebook quick before we disappear again.”

The neighborhood of Upper Bottom in Whitesburg on July 28, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Teresa Collins, Center for Rural Strategies)

Isolated dwellings, small communities and bigger towns in the affected region have suffered losses not yet calculated, and some incalculable. Homes, farms, stores, schools, churches, and hundreds of other places are gone forever, not to mention the number of lives lost, the total still uncertain.

Before the rains came, the Hindman Settlement School was conducting its annual Appalachian Writers Workshops. Roberta Schultz, a writer and Hindman faculty member from northern Kentucky, shared her experiences leading up to the evacuation with poet Hansel for the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition blog in Cincinnati.

According to Ms. Schultz, for most of the evening before the deluge, cell phones pinged with flash flood watch alerts. After midnight, emergency warnings were transmitted at 20-minute intervals.

“By 1 a.m.,” Schultz reported, “the warnings included the wording ‘do not travel unless you are being evacuated.’”

When the power went out, the darkness brought people out of their rooms. Alerts shifted to “Severe Emergency, Life Endangering.”

In a Facebook post, Holly Marie Roland, a workshop participant, described being notified at 2 a.m. that cars needed to be moved to higher ground.

“Dazed, we stumble to the wide porch and hear water surge on all sides,” she wrote. “The drive to the left has become a turbulent river rushing toward the ever-widening abyss of what used to be Troublesome Creek. The bank to the right is now a cascade. The murk in the backyard has pooled up to the first step. There is lightning and thunder and more lightning, and I wonder how the skies can deliver such violent rain.”

As daylight finally emerged, the extent of damages became clearer. Water covered the parking lot and the grounds. Vehicles of some workshop participants were submerged. As a result, ruptured gas tanks compromised the water supply and the water was shut off.

Staff and workshop participants pitched in where they could, including helping musicians wash off instruments that had been stored in a cabin that flooded.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

Later, once safe road conditions were verified, with Route 80 the prescribed exit route, Hindman staff organized the exodus. After that complicated task was completed, they “got back to the heartbreaking and backbreaking efforts to salvage the flooded buildings and archives,” Schultz said.

On the Hindman faculty, writer Marianne Worthington documented what was happening and posted it to Facebook. “I made all of these videos while a shaking, soggy mess during the flooding this morning at Hindman,” she said. “Many, many people who were at workshop lost their vehicles…It’s been a really sad morning.”

Writer and Hindman faculty member Jayne Moore Waldrop, a Paducah native with ancestral roots in Appalachia, recalled how “the relentless rain turned into relentless floods.” In an email, she described the experience of seeing her novel Drowned Town floating in the flooded Hindman archive and ruefully admits the sight was “over the top irony and symbolism.”

Waldrop also mentioned Kristin Smith, a chef and Corbin restaurant owner, Smith shifted gears from workshop participant and organized food service and hot meals via gas grills to feed the displaced and volunteers.

Poet and Hindman faculty member Nickole Brown took comfort in the company of her dog, Solace, her companion as she left Hindman to trek back home to North Carolina.

“Ride the rumble strip on the wrong side of the highway to understand this: Just how hard it is to pack up and leave behind a flood like the one that hit eastern Kentucky…How rough the roads,” she said. “How hard to find a way back over those mountains, especially as you leave behind you in fetid waters those who have lost their home.”

Commenting on local response in the aftermath, writer Silas House said in a Garden and Gun article, “Nobody is waiting for anyone else to come do the work. The people have armed themselves with rakes, hoes, and shovels. They’re moving debris and directing traffic alongside officials. Pentecostal church groups and organizations like Queer Kentucky are working together to organize collection centers and deliver supplies. A group of Mennonites from the area are set up on the side of the highway, dishing out fried chicken and mashed potatoes…”

The same spirit is at work in Whitesburg, home of Appalshop, a media, arts and education center that documents Appalachian arts and culture. Dee Davis, former executive producer at Appalshop and founder and current president of The Daily Yonder, a rural news site, put it this way, “It’s just rough. And when it’s over, what are you going to do? You just – you got to grab a shovel, help people out best you can.”

Volunteerism goes a long way in trying times, Davis remarked, but a sense of humor is another safe port in the aftermath of the storms. “I’ve got my grandchildren and my 6-year-old with me,” he explained, “and it’s like if the bacon and ice cream sprinkles hold out, then I think we’ll survive.”

Archives at Hindman and Appalshop have been damaged, which means that history of the region has been compromised. Various state organizations are on the move with equipment, expertise, and resources to help out. The Kentucky Historical Society sent a group east to triage the archives, along with other partners like the Association of Kentucky Libraries, Filson Historical Society, and the University of Kentucky Library System, among others.

KHS Executive Director Scott Alvey spoke of the importance of getting salvageable items from the archives into refrigerated trucks to enhance their preservation and repair.

“Our response is largely to cross-post important resources,” he said.

Kentucky Humanities is another organization pitching in. According to Executive Director Bill Goodman, the outpouring of good will from around the country is heartening. He spoke on his way back from Hindman and reflected on the extent of the disaster he saw.

“The debris was eight feet high on both sides of the road,” he said of Hindman’s Main Street. “One of the most important things I witnessed today was the spirit of the people.”

As the work continues, Kentucky Humanities will provide a conduit to the National Endowment for the Humanities, to connect funding to those who need it.

“We’re hoping to bring federal dollars to Hindman,” he declared.

Much like they did after the tornadoes in western Kentucky, Kentucky Arts Council reacted immediately to coordinate information and resources and assess the full scope of damages sustained by arts organizations and individual artists in Appalachia. With support and expertise from NCAPER, The National Coalition for Arts’ Preparedness and Emergency Response, and other partnerships such as Heritage Emergency National Task Force (HENTF), co-sponsored by FEMA and the Smithsonian Institution, KAC is establishing a pipeline that connects people and organizations in need to people and organizations equipped to help.

“With archives and collections severely affected,” according to KAC’s Emily Moses, “lots of people are trying to help.”

The Daily Yonder has compiled a list of resources and how to provide assistance. A compilation of official state resources is available on the governor’s website.

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One Comment

  1. Thanks for this extensive coverage. I was merely a workshop participant at Appalachian Writers Workshop. Just wanted to be sure that my attribution was accurate.

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