Despite dangers, deep roots make it difficult to leave Appalachia

Garrett, Q. (AP) — This small piece of a town just off a state highway in eastern Kentucky has been the home of Brenda Francis and her husband, Paul, for decades.

Paul Francis was born 73 years ago in this home, a yellow-and-brown one-story that, like many of Garrett’s homes, is nestled in a valley among tall, wooded hills. Retired school teachers love it here, and the couple were gifted the house by their parents nearly 40 years ago.

But after another flood – it’s probably the worst she’s 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 lifestyle. Some say they are considering moving away, despite their deep roots.

Francis, 66, said her husband wants to stay: “But I don’t. I don’t want to be here anymore, and he knows it. That’s why we’re going to get out of here.”

The Appalachian region of Kentucky has known the difficulty. The coal economy withered away and took well-paying jobs with it. The opioid crisis filled cities with millions of pain pills. The prospects were so bleak that many people left, making double-digit percentage reductions in the population in many counties over the past two decades. In France’s home county of Floyd, the population has declined by 15% since 2000. And in many of the counties worst hit by last week’s floods, household annual incomes are slightly more than half the national average of about $65,000.

But many remained tied to their communities, families and history. Last week’s floods in the region have forced some of those veterans to reconsider, particularly in and around Garrett, a community of about 1,300 people founded by a coal company in the early 1900s.

Ann Kingsolver, professor of Appalachian Studies at the University of Kentucky, said the region’s strong social fabric and family ties give pause to people considering moving away from home.

“Social capital is really important,” Kingsolver said in an email message. “They are resources that people have for many years through investments in social networks of relatives and neighbors—a kind of wealth beyond monetary value.”

When the 2008 financial crisis struck, she said, many young people moved back to rural communities in Appalachia because they had no choice but to live and care for children.

Kingsolver said there is little available rental or motel space in those rural areas, but flood victims often get help and shelter from relatives and neighbours.

Pam Caudill lives with her son on the same street, who has been a big help since flood waters reached a height of 4 feet (1.2 m) at their home in Wayland, just minutes from Garrett.

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

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

So he and his son will instead see what can be saved in his house and hope the foundation remains solid.

“This was my husband’s house; This is my kids’ home,” said Caudill, who temporarily relocated to a state park shelter over the weekend. “The city of Wayland has always been his home.”

Two miles from Garrett, 104-year-old Ennis Clark pulled out of the storm on her own after losing power and flooding her basement. She and her husband built their home in the ’50s, and she lived there long after he died in the 1980s, said her son, Michael Clarke.

“He’s a survivor. I don’t know of 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 be here until she is done.”

Clark was buying supplies for her Monday in nearby Prestonsburg. He graduated from high school in 1964, and said that many of his classmates went looking for jobs. In many parts of eastern Kentucky, he said, “unless you want to be a (coal) miner, your options will usually be teachers.”

In Garrett, Brenda Francis becomes frustrated with inches of mud flowing down the area under her home, which was raised after a flood in the 1950s when her husband’s parents lived there.

“When you’re older, you can’t clean it all up. We’re totally tired right now,” said Francis. “How do we get this mud out of here?”

Despite his wife’s frustrations, Paul Francis was happily cleaning the family home, stacking toys in a ’70s pickup truck that his father had bought brand new. Wandering around in rubber boots, he smiled as he prepared to hook up the pressure washer to clean the mud off his grandson’s toys.

Her grandchildren are one of the reasons why Brenda Francis wants to move to higher ground in Prestonsburg, where the kids live. She said that, like many people in the city, she doesn’t have flood insurance on her home – but she does have a potential buyer. She is hoping the fact that the home’s living space remains dry will make it a desirable asset.

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

“Who would like to come?” he said. “It’s still flooding here.”

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