JACKSON, Ky. – Shirley Howard’s feet splashed into nearly a foot of water when she stepped out of bed on a summer morning last July amid a torrential rainfall.
A devastating flood swallowing up Kentucky’s Appalachian region had reached her bedroom in the night. The family grabbed their dogs and fled their brick bungalow in Jackson as the water eventually rose to the ceiling.
Ten months later, they still haven't returned home. Howard, her husband, son and their three dogs, Maisey, Charlie and Lilly, have been living in a cramped trailer provided by the state. At least 100 other families are living in trailers and hundreds more remain displaced, living with relatives or in damaged homes while they rebuild.
“I am so dying to go home every day,” the 65-year-old Howard said.
Howard's house and nearly 9,000 others in 13 counties were severely damaged or destroyed by the intense four-day storm that dumped up to 16 inches of rain in eastern Kentucky. The fast-rising waters shoved homes off foundations, blocked roadways and submerged mountain towns under several feet of muddy water. Thousands like Howard had to grab what they could and flee. More than 40 people died.
It was one of the worst floods in Kentucky’s history, ravaging one of the poorest places in the country. Homeowners in the mountainous region settled by coal miners a century ago live in flood-prone valleys that offer the only flat land for building homes, an area already suffering a housing crisis before the flood hit.
Disaster recovery in poor areas like this stretch of eastern Kentucky presents a host of challenges for victims who already faced setbacks before flood waters rushed inside their homes. A single inch of water inside a house can cause more than $26,000 in damage, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“There’s food insecurity, there's lack of affordable housing, there's lack of access to resources ... and those things are just exacerbated after a disaster," said Sally Ray, director of domestic funds for the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, which helps guide private donations after disasters.
The challenges in Kentucky are replicated in disasters that strike poor areas nationwide. Low-income families can't qualify for disaster loans, and conflicting rules and separate thresholds for an array of federal aid can slow and complicate recovery, according to national experts.
“They're still recovering from Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana," Ray said of that 2005 disaster, which flooded most of New Orleans.
For a region with longstanding poverty and housing issues, Kentucky's massive flood plunged thousands of homeowners — nearly all without flood insurance — into a deeper crisis. One study estimates it could cost nearly $1 billion to recover the region's housing losses.
“We had a housing crisis before the flood hit,” said Scott McReynolds, executive director of the Housing Development Alliance, a nonprofit that provides housing and repairs for needy residents in southeastern Kentucky. The group was working with 400 families even before the flood.
The Howards are using FEMA dollars to restore the interior of their home, since they didn't have flood insurance, which can cost hundreds of dollars a month.
“It was just too much for us,” Shirley Howard said.
Only about 5% of affected homeowners carried flood insurance, according to a report by the Ohio River Valley Institute and Appalachian Citizens Law Center. Traditional homeowner’s insurance does not cover damage caused by flooding.
The report said 60% of the households damaged had annual incomes of $30,000 or less. A full housing recovery in the flood-affected region would cost an estimated $957 million, which would include moving some endangered homeowners out of flood-prone areas to avoid future costs, it said.
FEMA has doled out about $106 million to victims of the Kentucky flood for repairs, cleanup, storage, moving costs and other short-term needs. The maximum FEMA payout is $39,700, but the average grant was closer to $20,000, McReynolds said.
A significant federal grant of $298 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was announced in March to fund long-term infrastructure and housing needs in the flood zone. Another $20 million was allocated earlier this year by Kentucky lawmakers, funding to be split between flood victims and people who lost their homes in a 2021 tornado in western Kentucky.
But the large allocation of federal money could be slow to arrive, and it is unclear how much of it will go to housing, said Rebecca Shelton with the Appalachian Citizens Law Center, who co-authored the Kentucky flooding study.
“The big concern is really the timeline,” Shelton said. “It will be many months before these (federal) funds are implemented and I don’t know how much longer folks who are still inadequately housed can hang on.”
In Jackson and surrounding communities in hard-hit Breathitt County, bare house foundations, eroded river and creek shorelines, and scattered debris are glaring signs of the destruction.
Jeff Noble, Breathitt County’s top elected official, is still shocked when he speaks about the damage in his county, which was also hit by flooding in March 2021. One of his constituents has yet to find his wife's body after she disappeared in the July flood.
“It’s just unbelievable, really,” Noble said.
The Howards have been beset by delays in restoring their home. The interior has been gutted down to the wall studs; it needs flooring, electrical wiring and new drywall. They, like many in the disaster zone, have had trouble finding laborers to do the work, with at least one handyman skipping out on them. Howard is unsure their FEMA aid will be enough, with no flood insurance money coming in.
Many victims who lost their homes are rebuilding again in flood-prone areas, because that’s all they can afford, McReynolds said. “We know there are a bunch of folks buying garden sheds and trying to convert them into tiny homes."
His Housing Development Alliance is among a coalition of six nonprofits that have received nearly 500 applications from flood victims wanting to build new homes, McReynolds said.
Nonprofit housing groups, along with Kentucky's governor, have their eye on a longer-term solution: moving vulnerable families out of flood-prone areas to higher ground. McReynolds said the incoming government funds could help transform the region.
Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear has launched a rebuilding effort on former mining lands, to create new housing developments outside the flood zone. So far, 125 acres in two counties have been donated, and state and federal funds, along with money from flood relief donations, will help fund the effort. Officials broke ground on the first home in February.
With help from McReynolds' nonprofit, houses are also being built on a new street near Jackson.
Peach Tree Street’s first resident, Deborah Hansford, moved into a two-bedroom house on higher ground in late March. She was forced out of her Jackson home by the 2021 flood, and last year's flood walloped it again, removing any hope of returning.
Last year's disaster struck her family particularly hard. Her brother suffered a stroke as the flood waters surged and he died a month later, she said.
Hansford used her FEMA assistance to make a down payment on her new house with green siding and a wide front porch.
“I feel more secure now," she said, enjoying her porch on a mild spring day. “Hopefully a flood like that will never happen again.”