Above: Several homes were crushed together by flash flooding in the Koneva community of Perry County. One resident did not survive.

Housing Can't Wait

Op-Ed by R. Scott McReynolds

All photos by Clara Leonard / Appalachia Service Project
Dear Governor Beshear, Sen. Stivers, and Rep. Blanton,

I need you to do me a favor. Can you call Miss Essie up in Altro, Kentucky and explain to her that she’ll have to wait until January for some help? Actually, Miss Essie isn’t the sort of person you want to mislead — that would be like lying to your grandmother, so you probably need to explain that she actually won’t get any help in January but that you folks are going to start talking about how you might help her in January and that it’ll probably be more like February or March before you can pass a bill in a regular session. Don’t forget to mention that it’s likely to take a couple of months to write the administrative regulations and actually get some money out the door. So let her know it’ll be June before help is available.

Before you call her, you probably need to know her situation. She’s an elderly woman who retired after working all her life. Her modest home was hit by the flash flood and pushed about 4 inches off the foundation. Her home is still pretty solid thanks to a neighbor who propped up the back. The front foundation is leaning, but hasn’t given way yet. Hopefully it’ll hold until June. She got about 2 feet of water in her home. The floors and walls are all covered in mold. Fortunately, a church group ripped out a lot of the wall boards and insulation, so the smell isn’t too bad. 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’s been offered temporary housing, but she won’t hear of leaving her home. She is worried that someone might steal what she has managed to salvage from the flood. She also worries about the two stray cats she feeds and is afraid they’d starve without her.

Flash flooding roared through the kitchen of this home in Perry County, leaving a large amount of mud and destruction behind. The Red Cross deemed the entire home “uninhabitable,” and the low-income family is currently homeless.

Tell her for me, that we, the folks at the Housing Development Alliance, are trying to figure out if we have enough resources to buy property nearby that didn’t flood this time and build her a new home or if we will have to rebuild on the same property. If we rebuild, let her know we’ll build a super strong foundation and elevate the home so hopefully the next flood won’t get into her home. Let her know that as soon as we know what, if any, aid she’ll get from the state, we can start 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 in a new home. She may ask you 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, maybe you can figure that out for her. Let her know we are still trying to get an air filter to help with the mold smell in the living room. Let her know we’ll talk to her next spring when we know more. Tell her that all of Kentucky is standing with her and you have her back. You might even let her know she is in your thoughts and prayers. I am sure that will help her keep her spirits up through the winter. Ask her if she needs any more rags to stuff into the holes to keep the snakes out.

Can you also call Irvin in Knott County? You’ll have to call him on his cell phone because his house phone washed away with his house. He’s living in a FEMA camper. He’s thankful for the camper, but it is a little cramped with him, his wife and his two boys. He’s a little worried about where the boys will do their homework. Still the camper is much nicer than the shed they were living in. We’re hoping to build him a new home, but he wants to relocate. He and his family barely escaped his home before it was swept away and he and his wife just don’t feel safe rebuilding next to the creek. Let him know as soon as you folks decide how much aid he’ll qualify for, we can start pulling together the rest of the money for a new home and start looking for land. Let him know I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with the mortgage he has on the home that’s no longer there. Let him know that he only has another 15 months or so in the camper and to stay strong. Oh, and can you ask him if Miss Essie can borrow his shed if her foundation fails?

A homeowner attempts to salvage keepsakes and other mementoes from her home.

I need you to call Ms. Susan who is worried to death about her house. She lost her husband about a year ago and he worked all his life to build them a nice home. She’s not sure what to do to save her home. Just let her know to sit tight for a few months. Ask her to explain this to her sister who lives on one side of her and her son who lives on the other. Their houses were flooded, too. And call Mr. Paul. You’ll have to speak loudly because he’s 81 and a little hard of hearing. Tell him we sure hope his heat pump, which was flooded, keeps working through the winter. You might explain the LIHEAP program to him, because without insulation in his walls, his heat bill is going to be pretty high.


You know, you might want to ask the rest of the Representatives and Senators to help you make some calls, because I need you to call 1,749 families whose homes were destroyed and another 4,057 whose homes were damaged. All the Senators and Representatives voted for a bill that did NOT include housing, so I am sure they are prepared to explain why this was the best course of action. Just let the folks know you’ll help them sometime next year. I’m sure they’ll understand.

Thanks for helping out with the calls. We would do it, but we are busy trying to figure how to help these folks. We’ve got to pull together funding from donors, private foundations, federal programs, and corporate donors, and then figure out who we can help and how. 

To be honest, this sure would have been easier if the state had included housing in the relief bill. If we knew what the state was going to do, we could have started planning. We could have used state dollars to attract and leverage other funding. We could have started helping the nearly 6,000 families whose lives were turned upside down by the flood.

Now that I think about it, could you make one more call for me? Can you give me a call and explain why waiting to act on housing was the right thing to do? Because it sure doesn’t make any sense to me.

R. Scott McReynolds is the Executive Director of the Housing Development Alliance.
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