Flood recovery efforts in eastern Kentucky. (Source: Housing Development Alliance Facebook)

With last week’s adjournment of the Kentucky General Assembly’s special session, many of us in eastern Kentucky took a pause from mucking out our waterlogged homes and sorting through lifetimes of mud-soaked personal belongings to see if the recovery aid we so urgently need would finally be approved. We were hopeful that the scenes of devastation and earnest pleas for disaster assistance from thousands of displaced residents would be answered with swift action to rebuild our families’ homes. In a flood response budget of almost $213 million, surely our neighbors’ days of sleeping in tents or huddling in the moldy, skeletal remains of flood-collapsed houses would soon be coming to an end. 

It was to our profound disappointment, then, when we learned that a proposed $50 million provision to fund home repairs and emergency housing assistance was stripped from the final version of the flood relief bill. Now, with any action on housing aid postponed until next year at the earliest, I am hoping our state leaders can help offer some answers for the thousands of their constituents who are left to fend for themselves in the wake of a life-altering disaster.

Can Governor Beshear and members of the state legislature call Miss Essie up in Altro, Kentucky, and explain to her that she’ll have to wait until January when the General Assembly reconvenes for some help? Actually, Miss Essie isn’t the sort of person who falls for rosy predictions and empty promises, so they’ll probably need to explain that she actually won’t get any help in January at all. Instead, it’ll probably be more like February or March before they can even agree on a bill in a regular session. Don’t forget to mention that it’s likely to take another couple of months to write the administrative regulations and start sending aid payments to folks like her. So, they should let Miss Essie know it’ll be more like June of next year before help is available.

Before calling Miss Essie, the governor and legislators probably need to know her situation.  She’s an elderly woman who retired after working all her life.  Her modest home took about two feet of water and was pushed about 4 inches off its foundation.  The front foundation is leaning but hasn’t given way yet.  The floors and walls are all covered in mold, but hopefully, they can hold until next June.

Fortunately, a church group ripped out a lot of the wall boards and insulation in Miss Essie’s home, so the smell isn’t too bad now. She wouldn’t let them rip out the walls in the living room because that’s where she and her sister sleep. It’s copperhead season, and she and her sister are terrified that snakes will get inside her home – so they sleep in the living room where there are still walls. They’ve stuffed rags in all the gaps that were exposed when the walls and floors were ripped out in the other rooms. They think they got all the holes, but they sleep in the moldy living room and keep the lights on, just to be safe. She is also worried that someone might steal her few remaining belongings that she managed to salvage from the flood, and the two stray cats that she feeds would likely starve without her.

Could Governor Beshear and the General Assembly tell her that we, the folks at the Housing Development Alliance, are trying to figure out if we have enough resources to buy elevated property nearby and build her a new home, or if we will have to rebuild on the same flood-prone lot? If we rebuild, could they let her know we’ll build as strong a foundation as we can, but we can’t be sure if the next flood will reach her home again?

I hope they’ll let her know for us that, as soon as we know what, if any, aid she might get from the state, we can begin pulling together resources and figuring out how we can help her. With any luck, we can start building her a new home next summer, so maybe, by fall, she’ll be able to move in. She may ask them about how she is going to heat her home this winter since her baseboard heaters were destroyed. I’m not sure how to answer that one, but maybe our state leaders can figure out a solution. Perhaps they could also relay that we are still trying to get an air filter to help with the mold in the living room, but we’ll have to talk to her again next spring when we know more.

I’m sure, after explaining all of this, Miss Essie would appreciate hearing that all of Kentucky is standing with her and that our state officials have her back. They might even let her know that she is in our thoughts and prayers. Perhaps the warm feelings of our good intentions will be enough to heat her home through the winter? At least by then, as the temperature drops, she won’t need any more rags to keep the hibernating snakes out.

After the governor and legislative leaders call Miss Essie, we could also use their help calling the other 1,749 families who saw their homes totally destroyed. After those, I’m sure the additional 4,057 families whose homes experienced significant damage would be grateful for a call as well. Since nearly every member of the General Assembly voted for the bill that neglected any housing aid, they should have plenty of help calling through the list.

We would do it ourselves, but we are busy trying to figure out how to help these folks find a safe place to live for the next year.  We’ve got to pull together funding from donors, private foundations, federal programs, and corporate sponsors, and then triage the backlog of calls, emails, and letters from our neighbors desperately begging for help. If only we knew what kind of investment the state was willing to make to fund home repairs, reconstruction, and clean-up, we could have started planning.  However, I suppose in the meantime, the phone calls and vague explanations from state policymakers will have to suffice.

Come to think of it, maybe our state leaders could make one more call?  Perhaps they could call me and explain why delaying any action on housing aid was the right thing to do? 

Because it sure doesn’t make any sense to me.

Scott McReynolds is the executive director of Housing Development Alliance, Inc., an affordable-housing nonprofit that serves part of Appalachian Kentucky. He has worked to provide affordable housing in eastern Kentucky since 1992.

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