Kentucky Stories of Loss

Field Notes: Mucking Out

Early on the morning of August 5th, almost a week after the floods, and four days after the Christian Appalachian Project (CAP) put out a call for hands to help with disaster relief, I was driving down the Bert T Combs Mountain Parkway to Martin, Kentucky. I had signed up to drive over from Lexington on those days I could in order to help in clean-up efforts. As I drove through Powell County, there were early morning thunderstorms. Still, when the sun rose everything looked as the mountains always do in summer, green, lush, calm, even. But parkways are made for ease of transit—bridges span the hollers and valleys that aren’t filled in, sides of mountains are cut to level and widen the road. You ride above a landscape, removed from it. From that distance, the world looked fine.

That day our crew worked in Martin; there in Floyd County, on the northern edge of the flooding. Mucking out houses is slow, dirty work, so we stayed with the two we were assigned and didn’t go into Prestonsburg or even Martin proper. The first house was a single-wide on a six-foot tall, cinder block pediment. The only signs of the flood were what could have passed as a layer of dust on the asphalt and the muddy debris already removed from the house. If you looked really close at the door to the bathroom, just inside the backdoor to the home, which we used as our means of ingress and egress, you could see the waterline about two and half feet above the six-foot pediment. If you knew the kinds of yards you were looking at, the absence of early August garden plots, green and full of vegetables, also spoke to the devastation.

Nothing, though, prepared us for the inside. The carpets, sofa, bed, clothes all reeked of sewer. One of the homeowners we worked with, one who had seen his fair share of floods said, “In all my years, the waters have never stunk like this time.” And they were rancid. Wastewater plants, sewer containment systems, and gas lines had failed, and the waters had been a toxic sludge of various wastes.

The young man who lived in the first house we mucked out had an eye swollen shut. He had been washing out his clothes with drinking water, still the clothes had all been submerged and dirtied by the sludge. A day or two before, he had scratched an itch with muck soiled hands and now his eye was infected.

On the second day, we were down on Lonesome Creek. We had to drive through Hindman to get to the houses we were assigned. The glass paned fronts of downtown stores were all boarded up, and those that weren’t were broken and the insides were covered in mud. We mucked out the houses of two 70-year-old women. Their memories, photos of children and grandchildren, hand-stitched quilts, knick-knacks and mementos collected over a life, and libraries of books by Silas House, Thomas Hardy, Thoreau, and others, were all mud-stained, all sitting in their front yards, exposed to the sun and rain.

These women had the security of homes long-ago paid off and, thankfully, their social security checks and Medicare covered their needs. But now, with the memories of their lives spilled across the lawn, with their houses fully gutted, FEMA had told them they weren’t destitute enough. Their governments checks placed them outside the threshold for financial help to rebuild.

Floods have always been a part of the ecosystem, yet climate change and mountaintop removal have exacerbated the flooding. Rain patterns seem to be changing, seem to be getting more intense in shorter amounts of time, and where once there were mountains with trees, roots, spongey, rich loam, there is compacted, barren soil.

Appalachia, despite the work of people like Carl Dewey Perkins, whose statue in downtown Hindman was covered by the flood waters, is still being neglected. The neglect of the people and the infrastructure is part and parcel of the history of extractive economies. During boom-times resource removal matters more than land care and once landscapes are sucked dry, communities are left to fend for themselves. When disaster strikes, they are blamed for what devastation might visit.

One of the homeowners was a young drug user. In fact, he shot up while we were cleaning out the front of his house. Our crew leader, a former engineer who had quit being a television designer in the mid-80s to join CAP, a man who, in an understated manner, described himself as not given to much emotion, had to leave and gather himself as we cleaned out the bedroom. This shell of a house filled with muddied clothes and a soaking sofa was all the young man had. Among the crew there was talk of maybe having given the young man hope. Maybe. Though it seems that whether hope or something more is given, is not on us. We are simply called to help, called to care for fellow human beings.

The other family whose house we mucked out that day was grateful, they said as much. But they were still deep in shock, the kind where you show little to no affect and little to no initiative. It is all too damn exhausting.

Disasters and the response to disasters can be a bit like traveling on a mountain parkway. You don’t see the devastation until you get off the highways made for ease of transit and drive on into town. You don’t know a life until you’re invited into the home, until you sit with someone. Lives and worlds, homes and cities take time to build, years and generations even. Devastation comes in flash. The natural world can quickly move in, begin to sprout again, and cover over the damage. But homes, cultural and civic institutions, livelihoods, take years. We are three weeks out from the floods and, still, there are so many houses that need to be cleaned out, so many families still sifting through the ruins left by the flood, so much work still left to do.

The day we worked down on Troublesome Creek, we were right by the Volunteer Fire Station, the antique fire truck was still pinned beneath the bridge. An Amish group, one who had lived through the flood and cleaned up as much as they could of their own homes, were out feeding lunch to families. They not only fed us and all the work crews from the area, but also the residents as well. They had a generator and were dishing out hot meals in takeaway plates for all who came. They knew that for many who came this lunch was their one meal for the day. They knew that for those of us who had been working in clean-up, the food and conversation was what we needed to energize us for the long afternoon ahead.

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