Energy & Environment

Over the holidays, many eastern Kentuckians had gathered together in hopes of spending quality time with their families and taking a moment away from the stresses of everyday life. But between surging COVID-19 cases and recurring natural disasters, this New Year, it felt hard to catch a break.  Rounds of flooding and snowfall in the first week of the year sent county emergency management directors and repair crews scurrying in all directions.


Double Trouble in Pike County

Over New Years’ weekend, the Sidney Missionary Baptist Church in Pike County, Kentucky was hosting 23 kids in their weekly youth drop-in when they were alerted to rising water around the building. Pastor Zeke Stett had to think quickly.

“We could get out the back door, the water wasn’t as deep there yet,” Stett said.  

As the waters rose, the kids ran out the back door and up a hill to a neighboring house where they were able to wait for the waters to recede. They took refuge in the garage, where the neighbor brought them fresh blankets and socks.  They were lucky, Stett said — the neighboring community of Belfry was nearly submerged, and residents had to be rescued by crews.

The flooding was just the start of the week’s weather. Just a few days later, Pike County saw almost a foot of snowfall, followed by freezing roads.  Pike County emergency management director Doug Tackett said the cold weather has significantly delayed damage assessments and repairs, but crews are working as quickly as they can.

Tackett listed the damages: twelve homes destroyed, twenty with major damage, twenty-eight with minor damage, a hundred and ten affected. And that’s just what’s been assessed so far in Pike County alone.

“We still have more [that] we’ve got to do this next coming week,” Tackett said. “We’re not doing any now because of the snowstorm and road conditions.”


Regional Trends

Flash flooding led to swiftwater rescues all over eastern Kentucky. Breathitt, Knott, Leslie, Magoffin, Floyd, Perry and Pike counties were all under flood watch, in addition to large swaths of southern West Virginia. Many of these counties are still recovering from the floods last spring, which destroyed bridges and submerged entire downtowns, spurring three consecutive state of emergency declarations from Governor Andy Beshear. 

Flood risk is often highest in the Ohio Valley around late winter and early spring, but old patterns are starting to become less reliable in a changing climate. A 2021 analysis by the First Street Foundation showed that eastern Kentucky and West Virginia have some of the nation’s highest forecasted changes in rainfall, and thus increased flood risk. Storms are also beginning to dump more rain all at once, turning placid creeks into roaring rivers in a matter of hours. 

“We seem to be getting more rain than what we normally do,” Tackett said. “It just depends on where the rain falls, who gets it.”


Tips for Flood Safety

1) Stay Prepared 

Government experts recommend you:

  • Keep an eye on the news, and any emergency alerts. 
  • Gather supplies in case you have to leave immediately or if services are cut off.
  • Keep important documents in a waterproof container. 

2) When A Storm is Coming

  • Find safe shelter right away.
  • For businesses, send non-essential staff home in advance of a potentially dangerous storm.

3) During a Flood

  • Evacuate immediately if told to do so.
  • Seek higher ground or, if trapped in a building, go to its highest level.
  • Turn around, don’t drown! Do not attempt to drive, walk, or swim through flood waters. 

4) After A Flood

  • Avoid wading in flood water, which can be dangerously contaminated or electrically charged. 
  • When reporting flood damage to your local emergency management agency, it’s important to have visual documentation of damage — photographs of your home or business both before, and after, the flood. A guide to the flood insurance claims process can be found here.
  • Disaster Legal Aid has a directory of free legal assistance and a guide for those affected by natural disasters.

5) More Resources

Katie Myers covers economic transition in eastern Kentucky for the ReSource and partner station WMMT.