PRESTONSBURG, Ky. – Nearly a month after deadly flooding engulfed their houses, some eastern Kentuckians sheltering at state parks continue to wrestle with the same life-defining question — whether to rebuild at the place they call home or start over somewhere else.
Ivallean Smith, who awoke to rising floodwaters when her chihuahua licked her hand, hopes to return to the parcel of land she owns and loves. If she stays put, she says she’ll have to elevate her new home with blocks to try to protect against the kind of terror she lived through late last month, when the rain never seemed like it would stop.
Cynthia Greathouse has already made up her mind — she and her husband hope to leave soon for Florida. Greathouse was nearly swept away by surging floodwaters. Starting over elsewhere just seems easier.
John Bailey, meanwhile, still isn’t sure what comes next. His family’s home was ruined by the water, and his kids don’t want to go back.
For now, they’re all being lodged in hotel-style rooms at Jenny Wiley State Resort Park, a vacationer’s retreat tucked into the Appalachian mountains. Late last week, 455 people were still being housed in Kentucky state parks, churches, schools and community centers, Gov. Andy Beshear said.
For those displaced by the flood, decisions on whether to stay or leave will be crucial for the future of eastern Kentucky, where the coal industry’s decline has added to the region’s hardships.
Despite his indecision, Bailey sounded upbeat Tuesday, knowing things could have been worse. The catastrophic flooding caused at least 39 deaths in eastern Kentucky.
“We’re a lot better off than some people,” he said. “Some people lost their family.”
Flood victims said they’ve been treated with kindness at Jenny Wiley, known for towering pines, elk-viewing tours and fishing on Dewey Lake. The state parks, American Red Cross and communities have provided meals. But for displaced families, the focus is on the future.
Federal emergency management personnel have been on site. Other services included crisis counseling and help to replace lost driver’s licenses and seek disaster unemployment assistance.
Those at Jenny Wiley lauded the park’s staff for the hospitality extended to them. And they praised Beshear for taking up their cause. The Democratic governor has pushed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to accelerate its approval of requests for help.
In his latest move, Beshear called Kentucky’s legislature into a special session starting Wednesday to take up a relief package for eastern Kentucky. In his video announcement, Beshear talked about efforts to provide intermediate lodging for people displaced by the flooding.
“We’re working to stabilize our people through a travel trailer program, where we already have nearly 100 travel trailers full and more on the way,” he said.
By Tuesday, Smith, 60, had spent four days at Jenny Wiley, making her and her adult son relative newcomers. Since her home collapsed, she spent time with relatives and one night in a car wash.
Her vehicle was destroyed by floodwaters. She was hoping a friend would take her to the courthouse to obtain documents requested by FEMA. Her decision isn’t final but she’d like to return to the land she owns — though she knows she won’t find much there.
“We lost everything,” Smith said.
For Bailey’s family, some normalcy returns Wednesday, when his three children start a new school year. A school bus will pick them up and drop them off at the park, he’s been told.
Asked if he’d like to rebuild on the place he owns, Bailey’s thoughts turned to his 16-year-old son.
“He won’t even go back right now to even look at it,” Bailey said.
He’s not sure where they might move, though he mentioned West Virginia as a possibility. But he won’t do anything without thinking about what the weather might do.
“I definitely want out of the flood zone,” he said.
Floodwaters wrecked Bailey’s home, shifting it at the foundation and leaving the floors looking like “a roller coaster.” When he checked around 4:30 a.m. on the fateful morning, the nearby creek was within its banks, he said. By 7:10 a.m., the water was up to his ankles. About 20 minutes later, it reached his stomach.
Bailey, his girlfriend, her sister and his children made a run for it. They’ve been living at the park ever since.
Bailey said he’s awaiting a decision from FEMA on his request for aid. His family has a “little bit” in savings to fall back on, he said, but “it’s going quick.” Bailey said he used to work in the oil and gas fields but is now disabled.
Greathouse, 54, has no intention of returning to live at her rental trailer. During the deluge, she said, she was rescued by men who attached a chain to her vehicle and pulled it out of the surging floodwaters with their truck.
Unable to get back home, she said she spent several nights sleeping in her car until a church pointed her to Jenny Wiley. She’s been there about three weeks.
Greathouse’s husband is getting out of the hospital Thursday after being treated for a hernia, she said. They’re awaiting approval for FEMA aid, but once that happens they’re planning to move to the Daytona, Florida, area. She has family there, she said.
“Start a new journey and get out of here,” said the lifelong Kentuckian. “There’s nothing really here to offer any of us.”
Reflecting further on the thought, she softened at the notion of cutting ties to her home state.
“I’ll always come home,” she said.