Plans advance for rebuilding flood-prone communities to higher ground

Published 12:17 pm Friday, May 26, 2023


The Rural Blog/Kentucky Lantern

The state has hired two engineering firms to plan and develop housing at two Eastern Kentucky sites for survivors from last summer’s devastating floods. Both are on former surface mines, and Gov. Andy Beshear indicated that others could be announced soon.

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Beshear said last week that H.A. Spalding Engineers of Hazard will design infrastructure, including utilities, roads, bridges and sidewalks, at both sites. Bell Engineering, headquartered in Lexington, will design and manage development of homes, civic facilities and mixed-use residential buildings.

The two “high-ground communities” will be built on sites in Perry and Knott counties. The Knott County site is close to the Talcum community, near the Perry County line, and totals 75 acres. This property was donated by Shawn and Tammy Adams and could expand to nearly 300 acres. The Perry County site, 50 acres donated by the Ison family, is about five miles from downtown Hazard.

Beshear repeated that his administration is looking for more sites and said he hoped to have “a good update on that in the next week to two.”

Money from the Team Eastern Kentucky Fund will jump-start the project. The fund is also being used to partially finance small-project house construction with the help of local nonprofits. A Letcher County home was started in March, and four more are in the works.

Many victims are still in temporary housing; 114 households are still living in travel trailers, four are still living in hotels, and 14 are in state parks, according to the Commonwealth Sheltering Program.

The Spalding and Bell firms will coordinate with the state, Kentucky Housing Corp. and local nonprofits. Lisa Townes of H.A. Spalding said they look forward to the opportunity to be a part of building new communities for Eastern Kentuckians.

“All of us . . . know someone who lost their home and all their possessions, so this is very, very meaningful to us,” she said.

Mark Arnold of Bell Engineering said his company is committed to building a residential community that “captures the spirit, heritage and history of Appalachia.”

“That’s where many of us were born, and where many of our families are from, and that’s what’s important to us,” Arnold said, adding that the firm doesn’t want to “build subdivisions where people live because they don’t have a choice (but) build places where people want to put down roots, build real community, and begin to really re-establish their lives.”

The state is “trying to build places where people want to relocate,” Public Protection Cabinet General Counsel Jacob Walbourn said at the East Kentucky Leadership Conference in Hazard on April 28. “Telling people in Eastern Kentucky they have to move is very dangerous, because it’ll create a lot of resentment.”

Though officials say no one will be forced to move into the developments, Anna Eldridge, one of the young people invited to speak on a panel at the conference, opposes the plan though her family is still living in a trailer while they rebuild.

The high-school senior said she feels like it will cause more problems than it will fix, that there won’t be enough room for everyone in her Letcher County community to move, and she fears a loss of jobs in the community if people leave.

More than anything, she’s afraid such developments will take away from people the very things that she thinks makes living in Eastern Kentucky worthwhile.

“Eastern Kentucky is not about having all kinds of city things. It’s about being able to go out in nature and explore and be outside, and you won’t be able to do this on a strip job,” she said. “I feel like they are trying to city-fy something that shouldn’t be.”

Eldridge advocates rebuilding where individuals’ houses once were, in a creative way that incorporates approaches from other places where people have lived with and near flooding for generations.

However, state officials are focused on rebuilding homes out of floodplains, and this means moving to higher ground.

Walbourn said at the conference that one of the biggest barriers is money. He said that for every dollar donated to the Team Western Kentucky Fund after that region’s 2021 tornadoes, only a quarter was donated to the Eastern Kentucky fund. There is about $13 million in the Eastern Kentucky fund, while the Western Kentucky fund has $52 million.

“I hope we as a state can come together to commit to Eastern Kentucky to do rebuilding0 right,” Walbourn said. “We need to stack and marshal resources.”

That’s why donations of land for housing projects are critical. They save the state money it would otherwise use to buy property and allows it to use those funds to hire engineering firms and others to manage development.

Arnold said he and his team are on the job as of Thursday’s announcement and are excited to get started. He was already thinking about new and different ways to design and build high-ground housing developments in Eastern Kentucky before the flood, so when Spalding reached out to bring in Bell as a partner, he leapt at the chance.

“We’re super excited and can’t wait to jump in,” Arnold said.

One of the first things Arnold said he wants to do is talk with flood survivors about what they want and need, so Bell can better understand their perspectives, and potentially implement those things in their designs. Arnold has worked with local partners in Mayfield for more than a year on plans for their downtown rebuild after a December 2021 tornado.

“When you come into a community that’s been devastated, it’s a different process,” he said. “You have to understand they’re dealing with trauma, and they may not be willing to talk yet” about plans for the future.

He said the projects in Perry and Knott counties are already well on their way, and that Team Kentucky and the myriad state agencies who have worked on them are handing the projects over with everything necessary in place and well-organized.

“We’re moving forward at a really good pace,” he said. “Even though it doesn’t feel like it if you live there.”