Speaking with NPR, Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor Ryland Barton laid out community concerns that have only been exacerbated by the recent flooding. “Breathitt County got hit by a big flood last year as well,” Barton said. “I talked to a family that had just rebuilt their house and this time got hit even harder … Eastern Kentucky has been suffering from the decline of the coal industry. A lot of people have moved off because there are fewer jobs. And a flood like this might just accelerate this whole process of depopulating a really beautiful and culturally vibrant part of the country.”
The torrential rainfall that gave way to flash floods in the community was only made worse by strip mining that has robbed the region of trees, rocks, and soil. In addition to changing mountainous terrain, areas around mining operations and even water sources are also impacted as companies take the rocks and soil they’ve removed and put them in valley fills. This burdensome process meant to access coal seams leaves no room for buffers or even water retention and only makes it easier for rainstorms to turn into something much worse.
Grist notes that valley fills do tend to store massive amounts of water quite well, though the water that does end up there is contaminated from mining practices and can infect surrounding habitats due to what’s known as alkaline mining drainage. Experts who spoke with Inside Climate News have additional concerns about the risk existing mining operations pose in the wake of flooding as well as how those risks are compounded by other damaging industries like logging.
Were the federal government to truly take this crisis seriously and—as Biden vowed—stay until each resident is back on their feet and more than fully recovered, it would be unprecedented. Barton described the abysmal rate of approval for federal housing aid sought by western Kentucky residents impacted by last year’s tornadoes. “A very small percentage of people who applied for federal housing aid ended up getting it,” Barton said. “Six months after that disaster, there was only a 16% approval rate.”
That’s sadly par for the course when it comes to disaster recovery in this country. Biden can talk all he wants about Americans coming out of disasters stronger, but for Kentucky communities and any place in this nation facing the consequences of the climate crisis and its most ardent polluters, we’re frankly tired of having to be resilient.
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