Flooding in Eastern Kentucky is nothing new. Growing up in Leslie County, I knew the park in downtown Hyden — our county seat and only actual city, population 375 — regularly became a pond as the Middlefork of the Kentucky River swelled beyond its banks every spring. It was part of the routine changing of the seasons, and I even looked forward to the river rising as a sign of warm weather yet to come.
But this? I’ve never seen anything like this.
As of this writing, at least 16 people are dead and many more are displaced from their homes or without basic needs. In Perry County — which borders Leslie County to the east — Sheriff Joe Engle told CNN that “water, telephone, internet, electricity, all basic roads, all the basic things you would build a community around have just disappeared.”
According to the Census Bureau, the median household income in Perry County is $39,594 — about $28,000 less than the national median household income. Twenty-two percent of the county lives below the poverty line, including 32 percent of the county’s children. It is the second-worst county in the Commonwealth for health outcomes. In 2014, then-President Barack Obama named Perry and other southeastern Kentucky counties a “promise zone” with the goal of building up employment opportunities and small businesses while expanding options for career and vocational training in the region.
Obama saw the potential of Appalachian Kentucky, something too many of today’s liberals fail to appreciate. Instead, they have taken to ridiculing my home and the people who still live there as ignorant hillbillies reaping what they’ve sown. “Hope they don’t call for a national emergency,” one person tweeted as news of the floods got it. “Now blue states will be bailing them out — yet they elect Mitch n Rand,” said another. Yet another was more succinct, stating: “These people got what they voted for.”
On the one hand, I get it. Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell are objectively awful from any perspective to the left of Joe Manchin, an Appalachian Democrat who does about as much for the climate and the poor as either of Kentucky’s Republican Senators. The same goes for Hal Rogers, the Republican who has represented Eastern Kentucky in the House of Representatives for more than 40 years yet has done little to materially improve the lives of the region’s poor.
What upsets me about these tweets isn’t the attack on politicians. It’s the attack on the people who elected them. I’ve spent much of the past four years trying to explain to progressives outside of Appalachia and the South just why these states are ruby-red when the only thing that has ever gotten them is the contempt of some self-important liberals hiding behind cartoon avatars. Yet here we are, like clockwork, with those same pompous so-called progressives mocking my people as their homes wash away and their neighbors drown. It is contemptible.
The thing that gets me is that it shouldn’t matter how the people of Eastern Kentucky voted. I’m as angry about Mitch and Rand and Hal as the next person — angrier, perhaps, because they are actively harming my home — but none of that matters right now. What matters is helping these people in any way we can, not because it is politically popular but because it is the right thing to do.
For too long, the rest of the nation has looked upon Appalachia as a region that is separate, apart, a foreign land right in the heart of America. In his landmark 1963 book “Night Comes to the Cumberlands,” Harry Caudill writes that the “tragedy of Central Appalachia is that it is becoming more marginalized in American life just when the country needs more than ever what it has to offer.” Those things, Caudill says, include “bonds of community” and “family.” Our region, he suggests, “offers a model for a less frenetic and more measured way of life.” Caudill recognized nearly 60 years ago what I recognize today: that Appalachia is not separate from America, but the fiber of its being, and that rather than ridiculing us, the rest of the country could learn a lot from us.
That includes how we respond to this tragedy. The Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky has already established a spreadsheet of groups helping in flood recovery efforts. Eastern Kentucky journalist Misty Skaggs helped raise more than $15,000 in a single day for the EKY Mutual Aid group. This woman saved her dog by putting him in a tub and swimming through deadly flood waters.
Meanwhile, this man was suspended from his job for driving three hours to rescue his mother, grandmother, and sister who were trapped in the floodwaters. If you want to be angry about something, be angry about that. Be angry about the injustices being perpetrated on the people of Central and Southern Appalachia. Be angry about the poverty and the hunger and the poor housing and lack of proper infrastructure and the extractive industries that have made our region more prone to dangerous flooding events and the politicians — yes, like Mitch and Rand and Hal — who continue to support economic and environmental policies detrimental to their own constituents. Blame the people in power, by all means.
But don’t blame some of the poorest, most neglected, most mocked and marginalized people in our nation. Because let me tell you something: Kentucky elected Democrats for a lot longer than it elected Republicans — the sitting governor of the Commonwealth is a Democrat! — yet we still got here. The problem of climate change won’t be solved by replacing three Republicans in Congress, nor will the issues of systemic inequality be solved by scapegoating one of the poorest regions in the nation.
President Biden has already issued a disaster declaration for Kentucky. I thank him for that. I only hope that those recalcitrant trolls more interested in taking cheap shots at desperate people will find a smidge as much compassion within themselves. Because Kentucky doesn’t need your hate. It needs your help.