No 'quick fix' for KY

Seventy-five-year-old Bonnie Hammonds is proud of the way her husband coped with the 27 floods in 50 years that damaged the gas station he owned here in southeastern Kentucky.

BY SUSAN KIM | HAZARD, Ky. | July 24, 2003

"Flooding has been here forever. It just is."

—Rev. Ellen Peach

Seventy-five-year-old Bonnie Hammonds is proud of the way her husband coped with the 27 floods in 50 years that damaged the gas station he owned here in southeastern Kentucky.

Through each disaster, Charlie Hammond became known for his persistence despite adversity. "Once he was featured in Time magazine," said Bonnie, who is church secretary for the United Church of Christ in Hazard. "And once the local Louisville paper ran a headline that said, 'Poor Charlie, Flooded Again.' With a photo and everything."

Letcher County, where Hazard is located, has been a federally declared disaster area four times in the last two years.

And if you want to know what the river will do next, ask people like Bonnie and Charlie Hammonds.

"We lost our home in '57 but we rebuilt that," she said. "Then after all 27 times Charlie got flooded at the station, he would rebuild as soon as the water went down. He got to be real good at it."

Charlie sought government assistance only once he applied for a Small Business Administration loan to see if he could recoup some of the gas station's losses. "But he didn't get anything," said Bonnie. "I don't remember why exactly but he got disgusted and never applied again."

Charlie's attitude toward floods is one shared by many people in Letcher County, said the Rev. Ellen Peach, pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Hazard. "Flooding has been here forever," she said. "It just is. There is a fatalism about the fact of here comes the water."

Is it fatalism or realism?

Peach helps run the Hazard-Perry County Housing Development Alliance, a group that helps repair flood-damaged homes and helps people find less flood-prone land. Peach's church has housed some 350 volunteers this year who have helped with this effort.

But is there any "fix" so the flooding won't happen in the first place?

Not anytime soon, said everybody in Hazard from county emergency management officials to city planners to residents themselves. They have different beliefs about why floods keep making people here suffer.

Roy Benge, area manager for the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management, said it's because the weather is just plain getting worse. "We've seen a lot more flooding the past few years. And it's not just floodplain areas. It's runoff areas that normally don't flood. We're getting more rain than we used to."

But Lee Richie, a local city planner and geographer, said flood damage occurs more because people continue to live in vulnerable areas. "Many people for economic reasons continue to live in the floodplains."

Letcher County began participating in the federal National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) about a year ago.

Some 20,000 communities across the nation participate in the NFIP by adopting and enforcing floodplain management ordinances to reduce future flood damage. In exchange, the NFIP offers to sell federally backed flood insurance to homeowners. Community participation is voluntary.

But rates may run up to $1,000 a year in Letcher County, and many people just can't afford that, said Richie. "That may be ten percent of their income."

Others attribute damaging runoff and mudslides to past mining practices that destabilized the hillsides. At least some residents blame coalmining operations for putting their homes and their lives in jeopardy. "They wreck our mountains and then the mountains come down on us," said a volunteer as she worked at the Letcher County food pantry, which is run by a consortium of area churches.

But Richie said mining practices have improved, especially since the late 1970s. "Some old mining practices may have contributed to today's unstable conditions."

Richie is concerned about something he says people don't give a thought to in Hazard logging. "Logging is pretty well unregulated. I have seen logging operations that have just destabilized hillsides."

Is there a fix for Letcher County's flooding?

Not a quick one, people agreed.

"I mean, what would we do?" asked Benge. "We could maybe change the size of the drainage pipes?"

The only way to stop flood damage in Letcher County is to move people out of danger, said Richie. "And so the only real fix won't happen in my lifetime. What ultimately has to happen is that a combination of federal, state, county and city government leaders tell people they can't stay here."

For now, people try to stay prepared, said Jackie Joseph, who directs the area food bank. She has lived in Hazard for 41 years all her life. "A lot of people around here have good support systems because they have family. They seldom have to, say, go to a hotel."

And support is a good thing because Joseph, like Richie, believes many people in southeastern Kentucky have no choice but to live in the floodplain. "Yes, Letcher County adopted the flood insurance program. But frankly I don't know how many people who will buy into that."

Instead, people fend for themselves, she said. "They learn to build concrete barriers or rock walls. They base their lives around the fact that it will flood."

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