Despite the dangers, deep roots make it difficult to leave Appalachia

Severe Weather-Appalachia-Leaving Home (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

This small part of a town off a state highway in eastern Kentucky has been home to Brenda Francis and her husband, Paul, for decades.

Paul Francis was born 73 years ago in this house, a one-story yellow and brown home, which, like many homes in Garrett, is nestled in a valley between high, wooded hills. The retired teacher loves it here, and the couple was gifted the house by their parents some 40 years ago.

But after another flood – this one perhaps the worst they’ve ever seen – Brenda Francis said it was over. She joins many others in this corner of Appalachia who see this latest disaster as a devastating blow to her lifestyle. Some say they are considering moving despite their deep roots.

Francis, 66, said her husband wants to stay: “But not me. I don’t want to live here anymore, and he knows it. So let’s get out of here.”

The Appalachian region of Kentucky has experienced difficulties. The coal economy languished and took high-paying jobs with it. The opiate crisis has flooded cities with millions of painkillers. The outlook was so bleak that many people left, reducing the population in many counties by double-digit percentages over the past two decades. In Francis’ home county of Floyd, the population has declined by 15% since 2000. And annual household income in many of the counties hardest hit by last week’s floods is a little more than half the national average of about $65,000.

But many stayed, trapped by ties to their communities, families and their history here. The floods that hit the area last week are causing some of these worshipers to reconsider, especially in and around Garrett, a community of about 1,300 people founded by a coal company in the early 1900s.

The region’s strong social fabric and family connections make people consider moving, said Ann Kingsolver, a professor of Appalachian Studies at the University of Kentucky.

“Social capital is really important,” Kingsolver said in an email message. “These are the resources that people have when investing in the social networks of relatives and neighbors for many years – a kind of wealth beyond monetary value.”

When the 2008 financial crisis hit, she said, many young people returned to rural communities in the Appalachians because they had a place to live and day care options.

Kingsolver said there is little space available for rent or motels in these rural areas, but flood victims often receive help and shelter from relatives and close neighbors.

Pam Caudill lives on the same street as her son, who has been a huge help since the waters reached 1.2 meters in their home in Wayland, just minutes from Garrett.

Her husband died of a heart attack in May, and the floods tested her resolve to remain in her small town.

“I’ve thought about it, but here’s the thing: it took everything my husband and I could do to buy a house,” she said, crying. “It’s hard to let go of something you’ve worked so hard for.”

Then she and her son will see what can be salvaged in their home and hope the foundation remains solid.

“It was my husband’s house; it’s my kids’ home,” said Caudill, who temporarily moved into a state park shelter over the weekend. “Wayland, the city, has always been their home.”

Two miles from Garrett, 104-year-old Annis Clark braved the storm alone as she lost electricity and her basement flooded. She and her husband built their home in the 1950s, and she stayed long after he died in the 1980s, said her son Michael Clark.

“She’s a survivor. I don’t know any other way to put it,” said Clark, who attended Garrett High School and then moved to Lexington, where he worked in television production and operations. “I have no doubt that she will stay here until it’s finished.”

Clark was shopping for supplies for her on Monday in nearby Prestonsburg. He graduated from high school in 1964 and said many of his peers moved like him to look for work. In many parts of eastern Kentucky, he said, “unless you want to be a (coal) miner, your options would normally be the teacher.”

In Garrett, Brenda Francis despaired over inches of mud that flooded the area under her home, which was raised after a flood in the 1950s when her husband’s parents lived there.

“When you get older, you can’t clean it all up. We are totally exhausted,” Francis said. “How are we going to get this mud out of here?”

Despite his wife’s frustrations, Paul Francis was happily cleaning up the family property, piling toys into a ’70s pickup truck his father bought brand new. Wearing rubber boots, he smiled as he prepared to run a high pressure washer to clean the mud off his grandchildren’s toys.

Her grandchildren are one of the reasons Brenda Francis wants to move, to higher ground in Prestonsburg, where the kids live. She said they, like many in the city, don’t have flood insurance on their home — but they do have a potential buyer. She hopes the fact that the spaces in the house remain dry will make it a desirable property.

His adult children love Garrett’s town, but “they’re all grown up and have families of their own now. They don’t want to come back here,” she said as her husband’s pressure washer hummed in the background.

“Who would like to come?” she said. “Still floods here.”

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