Road to Recovery: Breathitt County moves forward after second flood

Published 12:23 pm Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Jamie Mullins-Smith keeps a Post-It note on her wall. It hangs next to a map of Breathitt County, with pins marking satellite outposts she created to distribute resources after the flood.

The FEMA representative who worked with Mullins-Smith during flood recovery left it for her.

It reads: “FEMA $ is only assistance, NOT RESCUE.”

Jamie Mullins-Smith, co-chair of the Breathitt County Long Term Recovery Group, keeps a note that a FEMA representative left her on the wall.

It sounded harsh at first, Mullins-Smith said. But she’s grown to appreciate the tough-love message.

Mullins-Smith is the co-chair of the Breathitt County Long Term Recovery Group and the director of the regional prevention center, Kentucky River Community Care.

Jamie Mullins-Smith, co-chair of the Breathitt County Long Term Recovery Group, stands beside a county map pinpointing satellite outposts she organized during the flood aftermath for resource distribution.

She’s had to make several difficult, and often unpopular, decisions while leading the recovery effort from the 2021 and 2022 floods that hit Breathitt County.

Chief among them is the decision to not help people rebuild inside the floodplain.

“That’s not long term recovery,” she said.

“It’s hard for people. They want their homes fixed. They want to be where they’ve always been. In some cases, these are elderly people that have lived there for 20, 30, 40 years.”

The case managers always make sure survivors who remain in the floodplain have a “safe, sanitary and secure” place to eat and sleep, but they cannot justify doing anything more, Mullins-Smith said.

The focus has to be on getting people out of the floodplain, not investing in something that’s going to flood again and again, she said. They encourage people to take advantage of the FEMA buyout program.

Not her first flood

Mullins-Smith has been here before. In 2021, Breathitt County was flooded.

By June 2022, the long term recovery team had bought the mattresses for the last home built after the 2021 floods, closed all but two cases, and decided to take a short break before school started before getting into future prevention and preparation efforts.

Two weeks later, the 2022 flood hit.

Mullins-Smith expects the recovery to last a decade. But she tries to stay positive. Whether they move forward an inch or a mile each day, they are moving forward, she said.

“You do get on social media sometimes and there’ll be the naysayers that nobody’s doing anything,” she said. “You just kind of have to close that and walk away because you know the truth.”

As a nonprofit, Mullins-Smith said they can’t get everyone into a new home, debt free. They can’t help families until there is new trim and paint on their walls.

“But our goal is to leave everybody in livable, sustainable, safe, sound, secure homes that they can continue to work on, and let’s go help another family,” she said.

“We may not make everything happen, but we’re going to make sure that we’re leaving them somewhere that they can live outside of the floodplain.”

Finding land in Breathitt County

The number one obstacle facing Breathitt County is finding land outside of the floodplain to move people.

Members of the recovery team have done the hard work of sifting through PVA records and tax records for properties nobody is living on, and asked the owners if they would sell for flood survivors.

But they’ve mostly come up empty.

Most of the property either belongs to heirs or coal companies, Mullins-Smith said.

“The majority of the highland properties that are accessible, because there’s already roads built because those were old abandoned strip mines or strip jobs, they are not willing to let go,” she said.

“And I would say that’s probably one of the biggest landowners in Breathitt County.”

She added that some of the coal companies may be involved in federal reclamation contracts they can’t get out of in time to help with housing.

Others are embroiled in bankruptcy litigation.

“I don’t think what they would get out of it would help any of those people recoup the loss,” Mullins-Smith said.

Many heirs are similarly unwilling to give up sentimental family property.

Consequently, Breathitt County is one of the only impacted counties where a higher ground community has not been announced.

Nonprofits Samaritan’s Purse and Housing Alliance have built 14 and 8 homes, respectively, for 2022 flood survivors. So far, they are the only ones.

The politics of recovery

The other great barrier to recovery is people that fall so low on the socio-economic level that they will never be homeowners, Mullins-Smith said.

“They will always be renters or they’re going to need rental assistance,” she said. “Where are our apartments?”

There’s also not a lot of sober living or transitional housing in Breathitt County, she said. That kind of long-term recovery for low-income Kentuckians would likely require an endowment, she said, something that Breathitt County cannot afford.

“The needs are greater than the solutions that we have for them now,” Mullins-Smith said. “But we also don’t want to lose hope and we don’t want our people to lose hope because again, these are things we are working on, and we know that that’s a need.”

She’s worked with state and federal money before; she gets the checks and balances involved, the stipulations. But that’s hard to explain to someone still living in a camper trailer, she said.

Mullins-Smith said that state and federal organizations need to be more realistic, instead of idealistic.

Many people would be just as served by having a piece of land to move their mobile homes out of the floodplain as getting new homes.

“If there was a piece of property, say we found 20 acres and we could divvy those up to half acre lots for single wide trailers and acre lots, we would fill that up just like that,” she said.

“… If we could give them a place to move out of the floodplain, do you know what that would do for their mental health?”

Mullins-Smith said that she will take any help politicians can give, as long as they don’t tell them whose homes to fix. They already have a system, focused on the most vulnerable.

She also said she would love to see emergency management be more centralized, instead of abiding by county lines.

“If there’s a major political change, what we need is to not start all over. We need you to take the baton from where we are. And let’s keep moving,” she said.

“I would love to say that we could take politics out of recovery, but we can’t.”