Road to Recovery: Flood-impacted Knott County asks government not to forget them

Published 2:06 pm Monday, October 23, 2023

This is part one of a five-part series — Road to Recovery — looking into the state of recovery from 2021 tornadoes in western Kentucky and 2022 floods in eastern Kentucky, with a focus on what each region needs from its political leaders. 

From June 26-30, 2022, eastern Kentucky got over 14 inches of rain. The National Weather Service called the amount of rainfall “historically unheard of.”

Forty-five people died in the flood. Many more suffered injuries or lost homes.

Over a year later, Breathitt, Knott, Perry, Letcher, Clay and Pike counties are still in the beginning stages of what will be a years-long recovery process.

Several eastern Kentucky recovery leaders shared what they hope comes next.

‘Worse than Katrina’

Scott Cornett woke up to thunder at 2 a.m.

It had been raining hard off and on all day, but this was different.

When he looked out his window, he saw water in the middle of the highway bordering Alice Lloyd College, where he serves as basketball and baseball coach and dean of students.

Pippa Passes Mayor Scott Cornett, also Alice Lloyd College basketball and baseball coach and dean of students, sits at his desk in October.

As he started waking people up, he watched as a campus security cart floated down the river that had, until recently, been the college’s main drag. Construction equipment, including two barge containers, followed.

Cornett, who also serves as Pippa Passes mayor, filmed the flood. It’s difficult to hear him yelling over the noise.

“It was just roaring,” Cornett said. “It was raining so hard, it was like someone was pouring out some kind of bucket or something. I’ve never seen it rain like that. It was so fast.”

Pippa Passes lost water and power, and nobody could get in or out for days with devastated roads, fallen trees and washed away bridges.

Yet, Pippa Passes wasn’t hit as hard as the rest of Knott County or the region.

“We had no idea here how bad it was anywhere else, we were so concerned here,” Cornett said.

As soon as they were able, Cornett gathered the 100 some-odd students and administrators who had been staying at the school for the summer for community outreach efforts.

They used four wheelers to bring food and water and clothes to Knott County residents unable to escape their homes.

“It was like – you’ve seen kids run to ice cream in a park or something – people running because they have no food or water or anything,” Cornett said. “… It was crazy and wild and sad.”

What has the government already done?

Gov. Andy Beshear and the state legislature have taken steps to help.

Beshear launched the Team Kentucky Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief Fund, which raised over $13.2 million in private donations for recovery, divided between:

  • $440,000 for funerals;
  • $4 million for immediate relief for survivors;
  • $1 million for rebuilding homes with nonprofit partners Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, the Housing Development Alliance and HOMES Inc.; and
  • the remainder to higher ground communities.

Higher ground communities are planned neighborhoods above the flood plain. So far, plans for higher ground communities have been announced in Letcher, Knott, Perry and Floyd counties. Together, they will house over 450 families.

The land where the Chestnut Ridge Higher Ground Community is planned, in Knott County. The 105-acre property is expected to house 147 single family and 18-20 multi-family homes, built with non-profit partners. The initial design includes park areas, a walking loop and an exercise trail.

The road leading to the planned Olive Branch Higher Ground Community, in Talcum, Kentucky. The 75-acre property is expected to house 142 homes with the help of nonprofit partners. There are plans for community recreation areas, a nature trail and a water treatment facility to help all of Knott County.

The legislature created its own fund, Eastern Kentucky State Aid Funds for Emergencies (EKSAFE), in a special session after the flooding.

The $212 million aid package focused on repairing public infrastructure, local school districts and recovery planning efforts.

After housing organizations raised awareness about the urgency of housing, the legislature added $10 million to the Rural Housing Trust Fund during the 2023 regular session.

The funds will be used to acquire land, build and rehab houses in areas of eastern Kentucky that received official natural disaster declarations.

Federally, Kentucky was awarded nearly $300 million in Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery funds. The money, which was announced in May, has not hit the ground yet.

‘Don’t forget us’

Over a year later, Pippa Passes and Knott County continue to recover.

At the college, construction crews are building a stone retainer wall around a creek that runs through campus. They also made the creek a little wider and deeper.

Before last year’s flood, the creek bank had never been within three feet of overflowing, Cornett said.

Outside Alice Lloyd, many of Knott County’s windy roads still have bites taken out of them, but they’re much improved from the strips of concrete that made up the highway the day after the flood.

“I think the counties around are still trying to recover,” Cornett said. “You can even still see signs of it, you just gotta look. But if you were here a year ago, it’s a remarkable difference.”

Cornett said that the local and state government response to the disaster was good, but that working with FEMA was “not pleasant at times.”

“People losing everything they’ve got and then not getting back near what they lost,” he said. “That was frustrating. And then some of the offers they were making for what people lost – some of them were insulted by some of that.”

He said that one FEMA official told him that she had never seen anything like the flood, that it was actually “worse than Katrina,” due to the comparable difficulty of getting resources to mountainous, remote eastern Kentucky than flat, urban New Orleans.

Moving forward, Cornett asks one thing of the government:

“Don’t forget us,” he said. “We still have a lot of people here, and a lot of prideful people that have spent their whole lives here and don’t want to live anywhere else. This is where they’d like to be. This is where they raise their families.”