Insurance agents in flooded parts of Kentucky reported Monday that their towns had been inundated with river water and mud – but few residents have flood insurance.
“From what I know, almost no one has flood insurance, and they got water 4 to 5 feet deep in their homes,” said Tim Ison, an agency in Hazard, in Perry County, part of a four-county area that has seen at least 30 people killed and hundreds of homes damaged or destroyed.
Ison mostly writes auto policies and reported that his agency has been swamped with dozens of claims for vehicles that were damaged in the flooding over the last five days.
“The mud is unbelievable,” Ison said. “They’ve taken truckload after truckload out of the parking lots around here, but it’s everywhere. And a lot of people still don’t have power.”
Laura Feltner, owner of a State Farm agency in Hazard, which writes homeowner policies, said she was too busy to talk Monday morning. Another agency reported widespread damage to homes, most of which did not have National Flood Insurance Program policies or private flood coverage. Several other agencies in flooded towns did not answer telephone calls. Others reported that agents were out helping to get aid, including food and water, to displaced people.
Rescue workers were still trying to reach missing people Monday morning, but were hindered by debris piled up by the floodwaters, according to news reports. Kentucky’s governor said he believes recovery crews are “going to be finding bodies for weeks, many of them swept hundreds of yards, maybe a quarter-mile plus from where they were last,” according to CNN and NBC News.
More than 12,000 people were without power, another hazard as temperatures were expected to climb later this week. Meanwhile, more rains were expected today.
“A lot of these places have never flooded. So if they’ve never flooded, these people will not have flood insurance,” Donald Mobelin, the mayor of Hazard, told CNN. “If they lose their home, it’s total loss. There’s not going to be an insurance check coming to help that. We need cash donations,” he said, referring to a relief fund set up by the state.
The lack of flood insurance in the region is not unusual. Studies in recent years have shown that only 7% of Americans hold flood policies. And flood insurance rates for many properties in vulnerable areas are rising this year after the Federal Emergency Management Agency revamped its risk ratings to be more data-driven and equitable.
Liability claims could arise at some point. The Associated Press reported that the coal industry, diminished though it is, could have made the flooding worse. The hardest hit areas of eastern Kentucky received between 8 and 10.5 inches of rain over 48 hours, and the degradation of the land wrought by coal mining might have altered the landscape enough to help push rivers and creeks to crest at record levels.
“Decades upon decades of strip mining and mountaintop-removal mining leaves the land unable to help absorb some of that runoff during periods of high rainfall,” said Emily Satterwhite, director of Appalachian Studies at Virginia Tech University.
The North Fork of the Kentucky River reached 20.9 feet (6.4 meters) in Whitesburg — more than 6 feet over the previous record — and crested at a record 43.5 feet (13.25 meters) in Jackson, said National Weather Service meteorologist Brandon Bonds.
Melinda Hurd, 27, was forced from her home in Martin, Kentucky, on Thursday afternoon when the Big Sandy River rose to her front steps — and then kept coming.
“As soon as I stepped off my steps it was waist high,” she told the Associated Press. She is staying with two of her dogs at Jenny Wiley State Park in Prestonsburg, about 20 minutes from her home.
Hurd’s neighbors weren’t as lucky; some were stuck on their roofs, waiting to be rescued.
Many people in this part of Appalachia had no homeowners insurance of any kind, according to news reports.
Evelyn Smith lost everything in the floods that devastated eastern Kentucky, saving only her grandson’s muddy tricycle. But she’s not planning to leave the mountains that have been her home for 50 years, the AP reported.
Like many families in this dense, forested region of hills, deep valleys and meandering streams, Smith’s roots run deep. Her family has lived in Knott County for five generations. They’ve built connections with people that have sustained them, even as an area long mired in poverty has hemorrhaged more jobs with the collapse of the coal industry.
After fast-rising floodwaters from nearby Troublesome Creek swamped her rental trailer, Smith moved in with her mother. At age 50 she is disabled, suffering from a chronic breathing disorder, and knows she won’t be going back to where she lived; her landlord told her he won’t put trailers back in the same spot. Smith, who didn’t have insurance, doesn’t know what her next move will be.
“I’ve cried until I really can’t cry no more,” she said. “I’m just in shock. I don’t really know what to do now.”
For many people who lost their homes, connections with family and neighbors will only grow in importance in the aftermath of the floods, which wiped out homes and businesses and engulfed small towns. Still, in a part of the state that includes seven of the 100 poorest counties in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, they may not be enough for people already living on the margins.
The flooding extended to West Virginia, where Gov. Jim Justice declared a state of emergency for six southern counties, and to Virginia, where Gov. Glenn Youngkin also made an emergency declaration that enabled officials to mobilize resources across the flooded southwest portion of the state.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Top photo: A home in Eastern Kentucky is washed onto a road on Saturday after historic rains during the week flooded many areas of Kentucky. (Michael Clevenger/Courier Journal via AP)
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