The Historic Kentucky Floods Were a Waking Nightmare—and They’re Only the Beginning
Harrowing flooding in eastern Kentucky offers a window into what climate change will—and does—look like
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Sometime around one in the morning on July 28, Matthew Parsons, poet and musician, arrived at the door in a rain jacket, cargo shorts, and crocs. Drenched and wild-eyed, he looked like a fisherman who’d survived a storm out at sea. He told those of us still awake that Troublesome Creek was rising, and the cars parked under the bridge were in danger of washing away; his own was flooded up to the headlights, unreachable. Thunder echoed through the hills, lightning flashed and lit up the black sky.
I was with a group of writers hanging out at one of the cottages on the Hindman Settlement School campus, celebrating the fourth evening of the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop, the premier literary gathering in Appalachia.
It had been raining for two days, and everyone in Eastern Kentucky was aware of the storm. But the water rose so quickly that our festivities quickly changed. That night, flash floods swept away entire homes and destroyed communities in Breathitt, Letcher, and Knox counties. Since then, 38 bodies have been found, and still more people are feared dead.
Floods in this corner of Appalachia are not new. But the frequency of the flooding in the last couple years, and the intensity of the storms, is unprecedented. That night, rainfall rates reached four inches per hour.
Troublesome Creek twists through three counties in Eastern Kentucky and runs right through the small town of Hindman, the county seat of Knott County. It winds across the grounds of the Hindman Settlement School, the first rural social settlement school established in America. Hindman is still active: it provides educational and service programs for the region and hosts the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop, an annual literary gathering now in its 45th year.
On a typical spring day, the section of Troublesome that crosses campus is a picturesque Appalachian creek, no more than six inches to a foot deep and about an average of six feet wide. Troublesome and the bridge that runs over it is a touchstone for many who love Hindman and the writer’s workshop.
Four days before the flash floods, I drove from Cincinnati to Hindman on a humid Sunday afternoon. For the week, I would be teaching at the writers’ workshop, which draws emerging and established writers, most of whom have a connection to Appalachia or the South. For many, including me, traveling to Hindman feels like coming home.
When I turned onto KY-80 east, I rolled down my windows to take in the verdant summer green folds of mountains and wooded hillsides, threaded by creeks and streams. People here live in hollers and bottom land, close to rivers and creeks, because the hillsides are too steep for homes. The Appalachian mountains are some of the oldest in the world, rich with deciduous hardwoods, medicinal plants, and edible delicacies like morels and ramps. But the land has been decimated by decades of coal mining, specifically the destructive removal of mountaintops that escalated in the early 2000s and still occurs. Mining companies rip away forests and trees, and blow up the mountaintops, removing up to 800 feet worth of rocks and soil from peaks to access coal seams. The earthmoving buries headwaters under rubble, poisons the ground and water, and strips hillsides of trees and vegetation, their natural defenses against flooding. Because of climate change, rain across the southeastern United States, including Kentucky, has increased by almost a third, and heavy downpours and flooding are more frequent. Strip mine-damaged regions are especially vulnerable to hazardous flooding.
I’ve taught at the workshop since 2016, and I feel a profound connection to the place and the community of writers, musicians, and activists who attend. I grew up in central Ohio, but my grandparents and much of my extended family lived in Appalachia Ohio. My memories of that area, where I also spent my college years, run deep. Both of my novels are set in Appalachia. In my debut novel The Evening Hour, a deadly flood, caused by a coal slurry dam breaking, hits a community in West Virginia. I read and watched everything I could about floods in Appalachia. But I never witnessed one. Until recently, I don’t think I fully grasped the urgency of the phrases “higher ground” or “come hell or high water.”
On the evening of the flash flooding, there was a faculty reading, with about 80 attendants in the audience. Later in the night, a group of us headed over to one of the cottages on the hill to listen to music and talk, as we had every night. The rain was steady, and I’d noticed earlier that afternoon that Troublesome was higher than normal, but still below its banks. I could have waded through it without much trouble.
I sat outside on the covered patio for a while, listening to guitar, fiddle, and collective voices lighting up the dark. We drank bourbon and munched on Grippo’s potato chips, talking and laughing, and as we say in Appalachia, having a “big time.” Through all of this, the rain came down.
What we couldn’t see in the darkness was that Troublesome was swelling. After Matthew Parsons came to the door, a few of us tramped through the heavy rain to the main building on campus. The creek had spilled over the banks and into the lowest section of the parking lot, where two cars were about a third of the way underwater. My car was parked on the higher side of the parking lot and I assumed it would be safe, but at the suggestion of the others, I moved it. Though Troublesome was rising, it was still difficult to imagine it climbing over the slope to flood the entire parking lot or the building where I was staying.
I went back to the cottage where we’d all been hanging out, and about a half hour later, we lost electricity. Emergency lights flickered on, and an explosion echoed down the hill—a transmitter just blew, someone said. I looked out the front porch window and breathed in the distinct, unnerving stench of propane. All I could see was darkness.
My friends and I walked back down to the main building, but could no longer get around to a spot where we’d been standing less than an hour before. The parking lot was now submerged. A white pickup bobbed in the swift-moving water, nose first. The alarm in the main building steadily shrieked. The lower apartments, where I’d had a room, had completely flooded, with sewage bubbling up from the drains and water rapidly rising from ankle-high to waist-deep. The three women who had also been staying in the apartments had made it out safely, and had generously gathered up all my belongings.
I helped carry up musical instruments from the storage closet. About six or seven of us moved quickly, quietly, and carefully, guided by the flashlights on our phones and the dim emergency lights. The first floor was dry and safe, but we didn’t know if that would change. Two Hindman staff members waded into the office trying to save what they could, but the water was already too fast and strong—while they were there, the water burst through the doors and shattered windows, quickly rising to chest level.
There were about 50 people staying on the campus. People woke up those who were still sleeping, moved cars to higher ground, and filled up jugs and bottles with potable water. A woman I’d sat with at dinner asked me to shine a light over the lot where her car was partly submerged. She wanted to try to get it out, but the lot had transformed into a sea of black water, with eddies swirling. I said, “You can’t walk through there, you have to let it go.” She burst into tears and I held her. It was harrowing how quickly the situation had changed.
At one of the cottages up on the hill where many of us had relocated, we gathered on the big front porch and stared anxiously into the black night. There were quiet conversations, and occasional sparks of humor or sudden hugs.
Other than rumors and speculation, we had no idea how high Troublesome had risen or how far the flooding had spread. We had no cell service or internet. The rain pounded the hills and we worried about mudslides speeding down the steep slopes. We wondered what would happen if the main bridge washed out. Many communities and homes in the mountains only have one road in and out—once the bridges go, it’s impossible to leave, to find higher ground.
The night was a strange blur, both chaotic and calm. I didn’t sleep. Time passed slowly, and we waited like children for morning to break through the darkness.
The light finally appeared from behind the ridge. The morning was disorienting, as we tried to grasp what we were seeing, how geography had shifted overnight. I followed a couple of others to a clearing to see the town. A picture on my phone taken the day before from this same spot captured Hindman’s downtown, the quaint Main Street with its two- and four-story brick buildings, including the Appalachian Artisan center and a music shop specializing in handmade banjos and dulcimers. Now, the shops were half-submerged, the green spaces and parking lots looked like lakes, the cars turned into boats that could not float.
Troublesome had turned into a mighty river over night. Tops of tall trees still rooted in the ground rose up like gigantic lily pads, their trunks deep underwater. I watched the creek carry away a shed, an empty kayak, and gigantic branches. Busted boards, shattered pieces of buildings, and unrecognizable plastic wrapped around telephone poles and the iron bridge on campus. We didn’t know if the roads were drivable. We waited, tried our phones. A few thoughtful people scrounged around in the kitchen and set out food, including a leftover Butterfinger cake and biscuits. The flood alarm that had been going off all night continued to beep incessantly, but, exhausted and heartbroken, we ignored it. Down by the main building, a strange flutter of white came into focus: four big ducks waddled back and forth, squawking and distressed.
Around nine that morning, the rain slowed, then stopped. We heard that the road through town was opened to one lane. We packed up our cars, and rides were arranged for the ten or 12 people who’d lost their cars to the flood. We quickly, sadly said our good-byes. Most of us have home elsewhere: Lexington, Asheville, Brooklyn. It felt hard to drive away—from my students, the staff, and the people who lived there, facing such immense loss.
Back at my home in Cincinnati, I learned, along with the rest of the country, the scale of the catastrophe. Four days after the flood, 37 bodies were recovered, including four young children from the same family. Governor Andy Beshear announced that others were still missing. All over the mountains, terrified people perched on rooftops and waited to be rescued by helicopters. Creeks, streams, and the North Fork of the Kentucky River had risen up to 25 feet in some places and ripped a path across eastern Kentucky, swallowing homes and devastating little towns. Over in Whitesburg, Appalshop, an arts and culture center and hub for filmmakers and musicians, stood under six feet of water, archives soggy and mud-drenched. Six buildings at the Hindman Settlement School were severely flooded and damaged, including historical buildings and the office that housed archives, precious letters, photographs, and works by authors and musicians. They lost computers and desks from the learning center, and all the produce in the greenhouses was destroyed. But the footbridge over Troublesome remained intact.
Ten days after the flood, I went back to Hindman to bring supplies and donations I’d collected. It was raining yet again. In town, piles of debris sat outside ruined shops, the stench of mildew thick in the air. The power was still out. But the school, like other community centers across the region, had become an emergency outpost, providing hot meals, water, and supplies. The rooms where we’d had readings and lectures were filled with tables of non-perishable foods, cleaning supplies, dog food, toiletries, extension cords and batteries, all free for the community. I saw staff and volunteers, including FEMA workers, busily working. Pallets of bottled water sat in front of the main building. Two older women pulled up in a pickup, and loaded one case of bottled water in the back. The women asked how many cases they could have. As many as you need, the volunteers told them. They took only two more.
Appalachia has suffered from years of neglect by national and state politicians, with decaying infrastructure, few job opportunities, and scarce educational resources and healthcare. Decades of coal mining have left communities exposed, without natural defenses against future storms and floods. Nearly two weeks after the floods—after voting against legislation that will invest billions to fight climate change—Kentucky Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Rand Paul finally visited the region.
I am writing this as a witness to climate change and corporate greed, but also to the resilient people all across Eastern Kentucky who are helping their neighbors. Community members, activists, and volunteers are working long, exhausting days to salvage what was lost, to provide food, water, and shelter. I feel buoyed by the love and care I see in the community. I want to say that this can’t happen again, but a declaration of that sort would have had to happen years ago, by those with the political power to alter years of ecological neglect and economic greed. The flood came at night, forcefully and quickly, destroying so many lives in its wake. Unfortunately, I’m afraid it will happen again and again.