The Fox at Dawn

The Flood: Five Weeks Later
The Bridge over Troublesome Creek and Uncle Sol’s Cabin.

Most summers for the last twelve years you can find me at the Appalachian Writer’s Workshop the last week of July at the Hindman Settlement School on the banks of Troublesome Creek. Like a migrating bird, I cannot help but land at that same place at that same time. I was not born in Appalachia, but I’ve had many rebirths there. As a teenager, long ago, I fell in love with its music, which led me to its literature, then its history, its landscape and its people. I’ve managed to find work there as a teaching artists through the Kentucky Arts Council for months at time in years past, giving time to learn, time to explore. We often spoke of a chosen family, well Appalachia is my chosen home and the fierce, hilarious and talented people at Hindman are part of my family.

The Chapel near the graves of James Still and Elizabeth Watts.

The Hindman Settlement School was founded in 1902 by May Stone and Katherine Pettit, educators who were invited by Uncle Sol Evridge to build a school on his land for the benefit of his young ones and his community. There were no real roads, the creeks and streams were your highways. There were few schools and they were far away, hard to get to. This was a truth all over Appalachia. The hills and mountains rise fast and steep, there isn’t much bottomland to build on or to farm. Farmers joked that they scrape their noses on the rocks as they plant their uphill farms. Uncle Sol had a vision- To make a better life for his descendants. He walked more than 100 miles to mail a transcribed letter to Katherine Pettit and May Stone to convince them to start the School. And they came. With the help and support of the people in the community and with help from outside donors, they were able to build a school with houses for boarders, barns for livestock, gardens to grow their own food. They built right beside Uncle Sol’s Cabin which still stands today- a one room log house built sometime in the late 1700’s or early 1800’s.

The annual reading of The Brier Sermon by Jim Wayne Miler.

The School has come a long way since it began. No longer a boarding school, it serves Knott County and beyond through its dyslexia programs, the teaching of traditional folk arts, its burgeoning foodways program that is bringing small farming back into the region and it has been the center of Appalachian literature almost from the beginning. Kentucky treasures Harriet Arnow, Albert Stewart, Jim Wayne Miller and James Still began the annual writers workshop. James Still is buried on the hillside by the Chapel. Writers gather every summer and at times throughout the year to work on their craft, soak up fellowship and to teach each other.

There’s a lot of porch sitting too.

It’s a gorgeous place, a sacred place. Generations of people have made it so. When you are there, you feel that anything is possible and what you have to say matters. When you cross the bridge over Troublesome Creek, you are home.

There are fresh webs every morning on the much loved footbridge we cross to our classes.

Troublesome Creek. It’s a long long creek, with a couple of branches that meet in downtown Hindman, the county seat with one traffic light close to the school. It eventually flows into the North Fork of the Kentucky River and then on into the Ohio. It’s just a little creek. Sometimes the creek goes dry even. Sometimes it rises fiercely and escapes its steep banks. You can tell it’s a troublesome creek by those steep banks, cut by erosion which is a longtime problem in Appalachia. Logging and mountaintop removal have destabilized the area, making it prone to flash floods. They are a common occurrence, part of life. People know how to live with them, at least they thought they did.

July 28th, I was at the Appalachian Writer’s workshop when the flood came. We were halfway through our blessed week. It had rained a lot and we could see that Troublesome was rising a bit, one foot, two feet, well within its banks. Wednesday was a great day- classes, communal meals, evening faculty readings and a trivia game night. Alerts for flash floods came across our phones, you know, the ones we all have learned to disregard. But that afternoon I told my roommate that I thought she should move her car away from the creek side of the main building. Mine was already on a higher spot. Really? She said. Yeah. Just in case. So she did, finding one last spot by mine. It rained hard all evening through our programs and socializing. It had been such a great day, I had trouble falling asleep. It was midnight when I did. At about 2:30 there was loud knocking and urgent voices, something about moving cars if they were on the low side. I stumbled to the hall, heard them say that Troublesome was rising fast. I went to the bathroom and flicked on the light, only there was no light. The electricity was gone. There was this roaring sound I couldn’t place- I shone my phone light out the bathroom window and could see that the usually bone dry little channel beside our residence, called Stucky House, was a white water torrent of water pouring down from the hillsides into Troublesome. DO something, do something. I started filling all the empty gallon containers in the kitchen from the tap in case we’d soon be without safe water. I filled the bathtub. It was all I could think to do.

The rain pounded, lightning flashed. More and more people were waking up, some heading to their cars. Josh Mullins, Hindman program director was soaked, the other Hindman staff too- all going to and fro trying to make sure that folks in the lower apartments were out. Former Kentucky Poet Laureate George Ella Lyon was in one of those apartments with poet Nickole Brown who had a hunch the world was about to explode. She didn’t go to sleep, but packed up her things at midnight and kept watch over the creek. It started rising so rapidly that by the time she alerted George Ella and helped her pack, water was coming through their door. They landed up at Stuckey, which became the refuge for all the Hindman folks in precarious lodgings. I grabbed my keys and moved my car even further up- driving up the little road that wends its way up past Stucky to the highest house on campus, others followed. People were crying, some had already lost their cars, their trucks, Tamela’s brand new dream BMX motorcycle- they had moved too late. That little tiny creek had risen impossibly fast, higher than anyone had ever seen. Some people stayed inside the living room together, some in their rooms, some on the front porch waiting for the glimpse of the creek that the lightning would give us. It’s over the bridge now, no way out or in. Josh and his team were down in the MIke Mullins Center, trying to pull things to safety from the downstairs offices- the computers, the archives. Josh could see that the creek was up against the new plate glass windows. He was thankful they had put in steel doors when suddenly the creek busted them wide open and all of Troublesome poured in. They got upstairs safely and out the second floor exit. 

Emergency lights in Stucky gave us some dim light, there were some emergency lights on the outside of the Mullins Building. There were four white domestic ducks trying to get into a door, a window, anything. They moved as a frantic little group, they had been washed out of the home. There was an overpowering smell of gasoline, underground tanks had been ruptured and the creek was full of gas and propane and oil. It smelled like it could catch fire at any moment. 

There was one member of the Hindman staff unaccounted for. Corey, his wife and three young daughters, lived across the creek in a sweet little house. The last anyone had heard, they were trying to get to a neighbor higher up, but they didn’t seem to be home. Their home was flooded and Corey’s wife had fallen and had broken her leg. Then we heard nothing. Phones weren’t working, cell towers were down. All night we huddled on the porch or in the living room, unable to believe what we were seeing. Unable to do anything to help. About 40 people, three dogs and two cats had found refuge at Stucky.

When the sky finally began to lighten at about 6:30, I grabbed my umbrella and walked over to the chapel with my friends Tia Jensen and Carter Sickels to see what we could see. From the chapel by the graves of James Still and Elizabeth Watts, you can see down to the creek, the health department and across to downtown Hindman. This is what we saw-

Under that Health Department building there is a parking lot besides which is Troublesome Creek. Then it pans over to the town of Hindman, the taller white building is the county courthouse.
Uncle Sol’s Cabin looking across to the Knott County Library and Opportunity Center. The water had receded about 5 or 6 feet when I took this.
From the porch of the gathering place looking over to the library.

It was about 7am when I saw Corey walk up the hill to his colleagues. He was soaked and muddy, but smiling. Thank god. They all burst into tears and hugged him over and over. ‘I thought you were dead, I thought you were dead.’ They were all safe, but had lost their house, their cars. Corey’s wife needed medical attention badly. He was trying to get her to a hospital, was looking for a vehicle and hoped there was a way to get through the roads.

The water dropped quickly- faster than I thought possible. In a few hours it had dropped 10 feet or more. I felt sure it rose over 20 feet that night, later measurements showed this was correct.

The footbridge over Troublesome after the water had dropped about 12 feet.
The doors to the office busted open. The water reached to the top of the doors at its peak.
Taken from the bridge going to the main road into town after the waters had receded. The water had reached to the top of those doors.
Downtown Hindman. The waters had reached into the second floors.

All of us were numb, in shock really. Some cried, others figured out where to stand to get cell service to call their insurance agents. The smell in the air was noxious- some gaseous bi-product that no one should be breathing. No one knew what to do. We workshop folks knew we were going to be in the way- there was no safe water, no electricity, food was quickly going to be a problem. We knew we had to leave, though we could get no information about what roads were closed, what was open. More rains were forecast and who knew if we would be cut off again. There was a window for leaving and we just hoped for the best. People who had lost their cars were taken home by those who still had them. It took all of us a long time to navigate the way out- turning back when a road was washed out, finding another way.

I drove around someone’s home smeared all over the road. It went from life to litter in an hour.

Our part of Troublesome creek rose like that in the middle of the night, in the dark. What is hard to comprehend is that ALL creeks and streams rose like that across 12-13 counties. It’s unimaginable. Truly. So many homes lie alongside the creeks and rivers- there is nowhere else to build. So many communities nestled down in the hollers were scrubbed out by the roaring waters.

We were lucky, us workshop folks. We had homes that were safe and sound, waiting for us on higher ground. Many thousands did not, having now only the clothes they were wearing. And they lost not only their homes, but their neighborhoods, their roads, bridges, grocery stores, churches, businesses, schools. Outside looking in, you’d say they lost their communities, but you’d be wrong. Appalachian people are uncommonly resourceful, resilient and loyal- That is what a Hillbilly is in reality. They’ve had to be. They’ve never been able to count on outside help, only outside exploitation. So they help themselves and each other. I do not discount the heroic and swift efforts of the National Guard who were able to pull over 700 people off their rooftops, but it was neighbors who saved thousands more- wading chest deep into dark houses to get their older or disabled friends to safety, who paddled up in kayaks, canoes, john boats, rafts to get their neighbors off their roofs, who tied each other to trees to keep from getting swept away. It’s neighbors who are now mucking out each other’s house, building their debris piles, sharing their food, water, clothing, anything they have. The restoration work will take years, and it may well happen again. Hydrologists have estimated that water runoff in the area is now 1000 times worse thanks to strip mining and mountaintop removal, and the heavier rains of climate change make this a real and terrible threat. 

The very morning that Hindman Settlement School woke to its own loss, they pivoted to become a shelter for others, a center for supplies. They scrambled to find grills and found a way to provide three hot meals a day to the community, even as they were trying to save their collection of instruments and their precious archives, a legacy of Appalachian culture. All over Appalachia, this is happening- people coming together to help each other, a true Water Communion, an ingathering of love and care. 

Those of us standing on higher ground have the opportunity of joining this ingathering, of saying “We are your neighbors and we want to help”. That so many people are doing just this, gives me hope. But it’s been over a month now and folks are starting to forget, the news cycle has roared on. I’m writing this now to remind myself, and anyone who will read it, that the flood is not over. Many are living in tents on contaminated ground, others are living in FEMA trailers parked on unreclaimed strip jobs, roasting in the sun, no shade, no way into town, no schools for the children who have nothing else either.  It’s time to build schools, homes, businesses. It’s time to build bridges.

To help Hindman Settlement School check out their website:

To help rebuild schools, check out Buckhorn and Robinson Elementary in Perry County:

To help rebuild LIbraries check out Letcher County Public Library:

Look at the amazing folks at Eastern KY Mutual Aid Group who brilliantly get money and needed goods directly into the hands of people who need help. It’s neighbors helping Neighbors, but they can use the help of neighbors farther afield. Check out their Facebook Group:

Thank you.

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