The horrifying history of Eastern Kentucky floods began with search for cheap energy
What a cruel way to die.
Picture it. A 65-year-old Knott County woman alone in her mobile home. A pitch-black night. Rain falling unlike any rain she has ever heard, slashing ceaselessly across her roof. Below, water rising, rapidly reaching her door. Power is out. Discovering that her phone is still working, at 2 a.m., terrified, she calls her daughter, 15 miles away. There’s no way her daughter can come to her, no way to help, except by urging her to hold on to something that can float. In the darkness she hears the walls popping. Now her home is afloat and starting to break up. She can feel it being imprisoned by rushing water, twisting, half submerged, tumbling, picking up speed. In the dark night, in the drenched dawn, no one sees this tragedy unfolding. No one comes to her rescue. Hours later, Diana Amburgey’s body is found, four miles downstream. Far from home.
What a cruel way to die. For Diana Amburgey and for the other 36 adults and children — including three in Letcher County — who, at press time, have been counted as fatalities in last week’s devastating eastern Kentucky flood.
Did it have to happen?
Some will say that the flood was an act of God. Others will say that it must have been the result of climate change. Others, on social media, will callously blame the victims, for having allegedly voted the wrong way or for living too close to water. In our splintered country there will be no shortage of opinions. We’re going to add ours here.
Financing our destruction
It’s a given that rain has always fallen in eastern Kentucky, and in hilly terrain some flash flooding is inevitable. But in the pre-industrial past such floods seem to have been mostly bearable. Tree-covered mountains have a wondrous ability to absorb rainwater and to send the excess safely on its way, in mountain streams that eventually merge and become rivers.
But for the past century-plus, ever since coal deposits were found in Appalachia, human beings have been attempting to improve on nature, or ignore it, or wrestle with it, often with disastrous results.
In the early decades of the twentieth century the principal form of mining here was underground. Deep mining killed miners by the thousands and wrecked the lungs of tens of thousands more, but its impact on nature, at least as seen from 30,000 feet, appeared manageable if not moderate.
But then came stripmining — the scourge of our mountains. And it’s here that those of us who have always revered our 32nd president, Franklin Roosevelt, and his New Deal, have to pause and take a deep breath. Because the truth is that a once widely admired New Deal agency — the Tennessee Valley Authority — has done more than any other force to override nature in central Appalachia.
TVA initially did wonders for the Tennessee Valley, building dams and delivering hydro power to poor rural communities that had never had electricity. But then as regional demands for power increasingly outstripped the ability of dams to deliver it, TVA responded to the need by building gigantic generating plants — powered by Appalachian coal.
To maintain the fiction that it could continue to deliver cheap power indefinitely, TVA used its massive purchasing leverage to set coal prices far below the ability of Kentucky’s deep mines to operate profitably. The agency negotiated long-term contracts with otherwise undercapitalized stripmining firms that could keep costs low only by ignoring nature — by tearing the tops off mountains to get at the coal within and then failing to “reclaim” the land (which we’ve put in quotes because it’s a gravity-defying myth that stripped mountains can ever be fully restored to their original condition).
So TVA financed the destruction of eastern Kentucky.
TVA’s actions over decades, amplified by other giant utilities like Duke Power that also relied heavily on stripped coal, set the stage for two massive floods that have wreaked special havoc in Appalachia. The first occurred in January 1957 — by coincidence a few weeks after the late Tom and Pat Gish bought this newspaper. They covered the 1957 flood and its long-term consequences. The second disaster occurred last week.
Recovery from this one will take many years and will require a sustained commitment by federal, state, and local governments. Considering the current state of our democracy, that is a tall order.
Still here, still standing
We live in a beautiful but battered chunk of America. It bears the lasting scars of having done as much as any other part of the nation — if not more — to power the tremendous industrial growth of the United States throughout the twentieth century and beyond. We could argue that in return for that service, Appalachia is owed reparations, a fancy word for a fair shake.
That has never happened. Maybe it never will. A nation’s memory recedes faster than floodwaters. Over the years Appalachia has seen insult added to injury by being depicted again and again as a hopelessly backward region populated by people not worthy of help — let alone admiration for generations of gumption in the face of tough odds. And our fear is that as we confront this latest threat to our region’s survival and recovery, it will be all too easy for political leaders — Democrats and Republicans alike — to write us off.
We can’t let that happen.
In the weeks and months ahead, regardless of party or prejudices, political leaders and opinion-shapers need to hear from the likes of Shannon Dixon Smith, a retired teacher who lives in Letcher County on Elk Creek, near Blackey, where she has helped raise her grandchildren.
In the midst of last week’s horrors, Shannon took time to post the following on Facebook:
Today my granddaughter Ellie celebrates a momentous birthday, 21! A legal adult. As eastern KY faces the possibility of more flooding on top of the already devastating loss of lives and possessions, I am reminded of why this area is sacred to me and others of my kin. I don’t mean blood ties but the common thread that defines us as Appalachian. We have witnessed the indomitable spirit of these hills and hollers we call home. We’ve seen our people rise up to help each other, watched as they choked back their own pain and loss to comfort others. I am, have always been, fiercely proud to be from a place and a people who are sometimes scorned and almost always misunderstood by those who do not look beyond the surface to the diamond core within. My precious granddaughter has spent the past few days volunteering at her old high school. She is the distillation of strong, brave and beautiful ancestors. She gives me hope that eastern Kentucky will continue. Let the world know that we’re still here, still standing, still Appalachia!
To which this newspaper can only add:
The award-winning Mountain Eagle newspaper (motto: “It screams”) is based in Whitesburg. This OpEd was first published on Aug. 3, 2022.