LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — Growing up, Alexander Gibson hated living in Eastern Kentucky, but over the years he’s become one of the region’s loudest advocates, using his voice to push for major investment for the people he feels need it most.
“Once I understood Appalachian, not as my oppressor, that is, in fact, part of the underdog system, and that oppression is sort of learned behavior from resource scarcity, then it was a cloud lifting from my hatred. And it became an understanding of who my actual enemies were,” said Gibson.
He realized he was fighting resource scarcity and a lack of investment and interest in Appalachia.
“I mean, we, the United States, has the financial resources to handle this problem if they want to, you know, we can see what happens when the government finds a problem that needs a financial remedy,” said Gibson. “But we happen to sit in a place that often isn't a great part of the government's interest when coal has gone. And so, the question now is, how much will the government care for the least of these?”
Since the July flooding that killed at least 39 Kentuckians, Gibson has been advocating for more help for the region. Gibson is the Executive Director of the Appalshop in Letcher County. They took on severe damage, as the first floor of their offices was submerged in six feet of water.
“Right now, counties are trying their best but they're typically under-supported in terms of being able to on their own handle a catastrophe on this level,” said Gibson.
In Kentucky, there isn't one agency in charge of flood control. The state’s latest hazard plan outlines it as the role of each county, city, and development district to come up with their own hazard mitigation plan and to apply for funding for projects with the federal government.
There are a lot of federal programs for disaster planning and mitigation, and there's been a greater focus on pre-disaster efforts.
In 2021, acknowledging climate change, President Biden directed $1 billion to help communities specifically prepare for extreme weather events.
The most common FEMA program for mitigation is the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP). But for some local governments, even applying can be a challenge.
Grants from FEMA to fund the project are reimbursement based on jurisdictions that can’t wait, often have to foot the bill, and wait months or even years for a payout. The grants also only cover 75 percent of the cost of flood control projects. The state covers 12 percent, but the local government is still responsible for 13 percent, which still could account for millions of dollars. That's if they're approved for the grant.
Municipalities nationwide are all pooling to receive money from the same pot of limited dollars.
Congressman Hal Rogers, (R- Kentucky) says the money is a big reason why doing major flood projects is so difficult.
“They have to get environmental approval and community acceptance of all sorts of things to make it happen. Not to mention, finally, me trying to find the money,” said Rogers.
For the past 40 years, Rogers has worked with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to support flood control projects throughout his district. He has asked the Army Corps of Engineers to analyze this flood and potential mitigation options.
One project created floodwalls and levees along the Cumberland River. The area hasn’t seen major flooding devastation since.
“It works,” said Rogers.
But they take time, sometimes more than 10 years to complete.
So far, Rogers has helped secure $800 million for projects to reroute rivers through mountains, build floodwalls and levees, flood proofing, and relocate entire communities.
- BEATTYVILLE FLOOD CONTROL- $2.5 MILLION (STUDY)
- PAINTSVILLE FLOOD CONTROL- $118 MILLION (STUDY)
- TOWN OF MARTIN REDEVELOPMENT- $75 MILLION (RELOCATION)
- CITY OF COAL RUN: $17.9 MILLION (FLOOD PROOFING)
- CUMBERLAND RIVER, HARLAN COUNTY, SOUTH WILLIAMSON (FLOOD PROOFING)
We tried to find a living document that lists all the flood control projects across the state and couldn't find one. We did find a dated list from 2018 :CK-EHMP 2018, S21, E2-E5, Enhanced Plan, Original Submittal.pdf (ky.gov).
You can look at how many FEMA grants for projects were awarded here: Hazard Mitigation Assistance | FEMA.gov
From 2018 to now, there have been 13 grants awarded.
The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet told us they have digital flood maps for several of the impacted counties but have not done the entire state. To obtain a copy, they asked us to file an open records request, which would not be completed by the time of this story.