Despite the dangers, deep roots make it hard for Appalachia to leave


For decades, this small town off the eastern Kentucky Interstate has been home to Brenda Francis and her husband Paul.

Paul Francis was born 73 years ago in this yellow-and-brown single-storey house, which like many Garrett residences sits in a valley between tall forested hills. The retired school teacher loves it, and the couple was given the house by his parents some 40 years ago.

But after another flood – possibly the worst they’ve ever seen – Brenda Francis said she was done. She joins many others in this corner of Appalachia who see this latest disaster as a devastating blow to their way of life. Some say they are considering moving, despite their deep roots.

Francis, 66, said her husband wanted to stay: “But not me. I don’t want to live here anymore, he knows. So we’re going to get out of here.”

The Appalachian region of Kentucky has had a hard time. The coal economy died away and took away high-paying jobs. The opioid crisis has flooded towns with millions of painkillers. The outlook is so bleak that many have left, and many counties have lost double-digit populations over the past two decades. In Francis’ hometown of Floyd County, the population has dropped 15 percent since 2000. Household incomes in many of the counties hardest hit by last week’s floods are just over half the national average of about $65,000.

But many stayed because of the connection to their communities, their families and their history here. The flooding that hit the area last week has even made some of those determined people reconsider, especially in and around Garrett, a community of about 1,300 people founded by a coal company in the early 1900s.

Ann Kingsolver, a professor of Appalachian studies at the University of Kentucky, said the region’s strong social fabric and family ties make people hesitant to consider moving away from home.

“Social capital is really important,” Kingsolver said in an email. “These are resources that people have had over the years by investing in the social networks of relatives and neighbors — a wealth that transcends monetary value.”

When the financial crisis hit in 2008, she said, many young people moved back to rural Appalachia communities because they had options for places to live and child care.

There is little rental or motel space available in these rural areas, but flood victims often get help and shelter from nearby relatives and neighbors, Kingsolver said.

Pam Caudill, who lives on the same street as her son, has been a big help since the floodwaters reached 4 feet (1.2 meters) at her home in Wayland, just a short distance from Garrett minutes away.

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

“I’ve thought about it, but here’s the thing: My husband and I went out of our way to buy a house,” she cried. “It’s hard to let go of what you’ve worked so hard for.”

So she and her son will see what can be salvaged in her home and hope the foundations remain strong.

“That’s my husband’s home; it’s my kids’ home,” said Caudill, who moved temporarily to a state park shelter over the weekend. “The town of Welland has always been their home.”

Two miles outside Garrett, 104-year-old Annies Clark weathered the storm alone as she lost power and flooded her basement. Her son Michael Clarke said she and her husband built their house in the 1950s and lived there long after his death in the 1980s.

“She’s a survivor. I don’t know what else to say,” said Clark, who attended Garrett High School before moving to Lexington, where he worked in television production and operations. “I have no doubt she’ll stay here until she’s done.”

Clark was shopping for her supplies in nearby Prestonsburg on Monday. He graduated from high school in 1964 and says many of his classmates moved in, just like him, to find work. In many parts of eastern Kentucky, “unless you want to be a (coal) miner, your choice is usually a teacher,” he said.

In Garrett, Brenda Francis despaired of the inches of mud that had flowed into the area below their home, formed after floods in the 1950s, where her husband’s parents lived.

“When you get old, you can’t clean it all up. We’re exhausted,” Francis said. “How are we going to get this dirt out?”

Despite his wife’s frustration, Paul Francis is gleefully clearing out the family homestead and stacking toys on his father’s brand new ’70s pickup truck. He’s dangling in his rubber boots, smiling as he prepares to hook up the pressure washer to clean dirt from his grandchildren’s toys.

Their grandchildren were one of the reasons Brenda Francis wanted to move, to the heights of Prestonsburg, where the children lived. Like many people in town, she said, their home didn’t have flood insurance — but they did have a potential buyer. The fact that she wanted the living spaces of the house to remain dry would make it an ideal property.

Her grown sons love Garrett Town, but “they’re all grown up and have families of their own now. They don’t want to come back here,” she said, her husband’s pressure washer humming in the background.

“Who wants to come?” she said. “It’s still flooded here.”



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