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After major flooding, Kentucky grapples with damage left behind

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HINDMAN, Ky. — Pat Sutton Bradley was cleaning up mud and damaged furniture when she found this: a poem titled “Don’t Quit,” printed on a sheet of laminated paper.

Like hundreds of other residents here, Bradley’s small business was decimated by catastrophic flooding that hit eastern Kentucky last week, killing more than three dozen people and millions of dollars in damage. Her business felt like a “wet war zone,” she said.

Bradley attached the missive to a binder and found herself looking at it often on Tuesday. “Today is the worst day I’ve had,” said Bradley, a retired postmaster and longtime resident. “I picked and flipped and tossed and tossed. I was exhausted. I didn’t sleep well last night. But today I fell.

Knott County, where Bradley lives, has a lot to mourn. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) said Monday that 38 people were killed in the crushing floods last week. Many of those deaths – at least 17 – were concentrated here.

“The way it affects every single person is just phenomenal,” said Tabatha Mosley, 36, a longtime resident who repairs string instruments at Hindman. “There have been lives lost, homes lost. Just a complete reversal.

Downtown Hindman, the county seat, has only one intersection with a red light. A row of two- and three-story buildings flank both sides of Main Street. Two days ago the sidewalks were covered in thick mud. On Tuesday, mud-speckled debris – laid out in heaps a few feet high after being removed from inside businesses – was waiting to be transported by truck.

Forested hills surround the city on all sides and Troublesome Creek, which overflowed last week, meanders toward the Kentucky River. “Country. Mountains,” Mosley said describing the area. “Just a little hometown. If you blink, you’ll miss it.

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Near the town center is the Hindman Settlement School. The school was founded by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1902 to give the children of local coal miners a basic education and knowledge of traditional arts like weaving and woodworking, said Will Anderson, executive director from school.

Over the past few decades, the Colony School has worked to fill unmet local educational needs and nurture local authors, Anderson said. The school is also a preserve of Appalachian history. Documents, artifacts and traditional instruments, some dating back more than a century, were stored in the school’s basement.

Last week, a wall of water knocked heavy basement doors off their hinges, shattering glass partitions and threatening a valuable collection of local culture. The large doors narrowly missed the staff members who worked frantically in the basement to preserve the collection.

“If they had stood a few more feet, it would have hit them,” Anderson said. “We could have had a death.”

Within minutes the water was chest deep in the basement. Outside, a dozen vehicles – including several belonging to participants in a literary workshop that the school was hosting – were swept away by a raging current.

Staff work that night and throughout the past week likely saved the majority of the collection, Anderson said. More than 20 ancient dulcimers, a stringed instrument native to Appalachia, have largely been spared.

After the flood, the school appealed for help. Volunteers and staff flocked to ‘triage’ the collection, assessing what was most in need of preservation. On Tuesday, the tables were full of old photographs – some stained brown and curling at the edges – sitting in neat rows and drying out.

“We had a lot of document preservation experts here, we probably had 50 volunteers,” Anderson said. “There was like a magic window, the first 72 hours after the flood, where we had the best chance of saving these materials. That’s when we had this operation.

Since the flood, the school has also provided shelter for local residents. There are approximately 100 beds on campus and 38 were occupied by those who lost their homes. Despite their loss, Anderson said many of those staying at the school were eager to help preserve the collection. A woman told Anderson she wanted to give back because of the help the school had given her.

“His mobile home was swept away by the flood,” Anderson said. “She got nothing out of it, except to escape it. And yet here she is trying to work and help us recover.

This woman was Mosley. She said she lived in Carrie’s community in a trailer. Many of his neighbors were part of his family. In the middle of the night, the water came in quickly, Mosley said, and much higher than she had ever seen. As it escaped to higher ground, the water swept one trailer into another, like dominoes, until finally demolishing its own.

“It was so loud with all that metal churning and glass breaking,” Mosley said.

His family escaped with some of their cars and waited with them on higher ground for hours until the water drained enough from the pavement to get out, eventually making their way to school . Facebook friends, she said, found family photos of their trailers downriver in another county.

Rebuilding could take years, Beshear said. But Bradley said she believes in this community because of how they grew and grew together.

“We grew hard,” Bradley said. “From there, we will succeed. We’ve done it our whole life. And we will get through this.

Excess precipitation in eastern Kentucky is consistent with an observed trend toward more extreme precipitation events in the United States over the past several decades. Scientists have linked this increase to human-caused climate change, as a warmer atmosphere is able to hold more moisture and produce more precipitation.

Water from Troublesome Creek and other generally small creeks flooded places where many residents say they have never seen high water before.

This was the case for Mosley’s home, adding that its landlord did not have flood insurance. She said the peak of the disaster should be taken into account in the reconstruction process.

“It’s definitely something to pay attention to,” Mosley said. “They don’t call it Troublesome Creek for nothing.”