Whitesburg, one year after the historic eastern Kentucky flooding
July 28th. A little before 6:30 a.m., Faye and Arnold Weaver heard their granddaughter call out from the first floor of their home on Maryland Drive. The north fork of the Kentucky River was out of its banks and into her bedroom.
“So we jumped up, we looked out the window and there was water everywhere. So we put on our clothes and grabbed a few things and got our vehicles out and went out there. It was just awful. The water was rising so fast. We didn't have time to do much.”
In downtown Whitesburg, Carrie Wells Carter was in a second-story apartment with her husband Matthew and their 5-year-old daughter. They’d been there for more than a decade; it was convenient, just across the street from the Appalachian Regional Law Center – the ACLC – where they both work.
“We woke up about 7:30. And my husband was already up so he, you know, he was like, ‘You have to come see how high the river is.’ And it was higher than we'd ever seen it. It wasn't over the road yet.”
They moved their car to the top of the hill where the old Whitesburg High School sits. Matthew went inside the ACLC to shut the power off. When he walked out, he was calf-deep in water.
Whitesburg Mayor Tiffany Craft was on higher ground, too.
“I watched on Main Street as the water just kept coming kept coming, kept coming, rising up, getting higher and higher. I thought Main Street is washing away. I thought Whitesburg is gone.”
Craft hadn’t planned on becoming mayor. That was her husband’s job. But longtime Mayor James Wiley Craft died in June 2021. Two weeks later, the Whitesburg City Council voted unanimously to appoint his widow to fill the remainder of his term. She said in the days, weeks and months that followed, help came from seemingly everywhere.
After search and rescue operations, it was time to find places for people to live. Some gave up and left Letcher County and some were able to clean up their homes and move back in. Not the Weavers. They found a place to rent and applied to Homes, Incorporated, a nonprofit based in Whitesburg with the mission of providing “affordable and efficient housing solutions to distressed communities in Eastern Kentucky.”
The Weavers moved into their new home on Copperhead Road in January, with country music star and Lawrence County native Tyler Childers chipping in $12,500. It was half the size of the one in which they’d planned to spend the rest of their lives.
“But you know, we've got all we need. We're blessed.”
Progress aside, most flood survivors still have what Carrie Carter calls “pretty intense weather anxiety.”
“We had a great deal of rain and a little bit of flooding in February. And it you just everyone felt it, you could walk down the street and see it in everyone's face, just like, ‘Oh boy, here we go.”
The comeback continued. In early April, the IGA in Isom, closed after six-and-a-half feet of water flooded the aisles, reopened. Until then, many Letcher residents had an hour-plus round trip for groceries. Store manager Simon Christon was happy to be back in what he called not just a grocery, but a community gathering place.
“Nine months ago, if you told us at this moment, we would be here and having the success that we're having, we would have said there's no way possible. We didn't think we were ever gonna get these doors back open.”
Almost a year after what Letcher Countians hope is indeed a once-in-a-lifetime flood, the ACLC may reopen its Main Street office within days. Carrie Wells Carter likes the way downtown Whitesburg looks, too.
“I would say walking around in Whitesburg in the city looks similar, if not even better than it did before. I think there was a lot of work done to help people get their homes habitable again.”
Mayor Craft, having been reelected with 65 percent of the vote the November before the flood, said much remains to be done, but …
“I think Whitesburg is back. We’ve rebuilt at least 95 percent of Whitesburg’s businesses back, and we’ve even gained some.”