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Seeking stability in school when the flood waters rise

Kentucky’s efforts to create a normal school year after floods show new reality of climate change

Piles of debris have collected outside Buckhorn School, a K-12 school damaged by severe flooding in eastern Kentucky. (Austyn Gaffney for the Hechinger Report)

Ophelia Carter missed her first year of school because of covid-19 closures and her parents’ concerns for her health with no vaccination available for children under five. But in February, the 5-year-old received her first dose and was excited about starting kindergarten at her Eastern Kentucky school this fall.

Then came July. Devastating floods swept through Letcher County, where Ophelia lives, and other counties in the region, killing 40 people and damaging or destroying more than 10,000 homes. The floods also disrupted infrastructure, including power grids, water systems, and roads and bridges, for thousands more. The 25 affected school districts reopened weeks past their normal schedule, and damage to schools in the region may top $100 million, Gov. Andy Beshear (D) said in the days after the flooding.

“Everyone has a direct link to how awful this is,” Ophelia’s mother, Carrie Carter, said at a restaurant near their home. The restaurant, Heritage Kitchen, and the Carters’ home were barely spared from the rising water.

“Everyone!” echoed Ophelia, taking bites of barbecue potato chips and coloring a butterfly with neon crayons. The flood damage closed her school, forcing students to a different campus that opened more than a month late.

Such disasters have become a familiar story, from megafires burning through communities in California to record heat waves forcing school closures in areas without air conditioning. Florida and Puerto Rico have both been left reeling after hurricanes. School systems, already with aging buildings and deferred maintenance are often left uniquely vulnerable in the aftermath.

No one disaster can be linked directly to climate change, but experts agree that extreme weather events, like the downpours that shattered rainfall records in Eastern Kentucky, are becoming more common as the atmosphere warms. And here, the floods are already testing the resilience of a community that has been strained both from the pandemic and from a long-standing lack of investment after the coal economy dried up.

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And while Kentucky is on the slow road to recovery, new weather events are stressing other communities. In Florida, hit by Hurricane Ian on Sept. 28, the death toll was at least 127 three weeks after the storm. Damage is expected to be in the tens of billions.

“Essentially climate change is loading the dice, so it’s making it more likely that we’ll have these major extreme events more frequently,” said Bill Haneberg, director of the Kentucky Geological Survey and Kentucky’s state geologist, noting that these extreme meteorological events — such as the December 2021 tornadoes that ripped through Western Kentucky, killing 81 — have occurred across the commonwealth. Both the tornadoes and the more recent flooding damaged schools; those left standing were transformed into relief centers. It took weeks in some cases for regular classes to resume.

“The 100-year flood may become the 50-year flood, and the 50-year flood may become the 10-or the 20-year flood,” Haneberg said. “If we’re talking about vulnerability and resilience, it’s hard to be resilient if your town is getting wiped out every 10 years instead of every 100 years.”

Kentucky’s experience as cleanup and recovery efforts continue offers a glimpse of what is awaiting other regions.

The damage to Ophelia’s school, West Whitesburg Elementary, was so extensive that its roughly 430 students were moved into Letcher County Central High School. School opening was delayed more than a month.

Carter, Ophelia’s mom, often feels anxious in her apartment and is struggling with what she saw during the flood. She wants to move her family to higher ground, and she’s even questioning whether she wants to remain in Whitesburg, she said. But when she considers moving, she said nowhere feels safe.

“You can plan and you can plan, but the way climate change is going, who knows?” Carter said.

In Perry County, another area devastated by flooding, two elementary schools were consolidated into a school building, AB Combs, that had closed five years ago because of population declines. To prepare for the emergency reopening, teachers like Justin Brashear scrambled to ready neglected buildings for students who, after three school years affected by the coronavirus pandemic, are getting further away from a typical education.

Brashear, a PE and health teacher and bus driver for flood-damaged Buckhorn School, spent days replacing ceiling tiles and tearing out old insulation at AB Combs. Beneath a ceiling that looked like a gaping mouth with missing teeth, volunteers, including teachers, school administrators and parents, cleaned out abandoned classrooms and removed half a decade of miscellany. Outside, landscapers cleared a path in a bank of overgrown kudzu so students could access the sports field.

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“Recovery in the sense of things getting back to normal is going to take time,” Brashear said. “But as far as recovering mentally or physically, some people can brush that stuff off and pitch in and do what they need to do to help others and get through the day-to-day, but I worry about the smaller kids. They really haven’t had a “normal” school year in years. Covid compounds everything they’re going through.”

By mid-September, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had approved more than 7,600 applications for assistance through the Individuals and Households program, providing $71 million in relief. But many residents say the relief they’re getting, if their application is approved, is a drop in the bucket compared with the extent of their loss.

The governor successfully appealed to FEMA to extend the application period for the assistance program for an additional 30 days. He also announced the creation of a new group that will provide guidance and leadership for community recovery and resiliency.

“We have to accept the fact that we are going to face more frequent disasters with more intensity,” said Jeremy Slinker, director of Kentucky Emergency Management, at a September news conference. “Once we accept that, we know we have to be ready.”

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More than 6,000 schools nationwide are located in areas at a high risk of flooding, according to a 2017 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“Infrastructure, in particular, for schools across the country is really outdated and needs investment in terms of adapting and building resilience to climate impacts ahead,” said Laura Schifter, a senior fellow leading K12 Climate Initiative at the Aspen Institute.

For Kentucky, that could mean proactively investing in elevating buildings, creating dikes, or creating flood walls. But Haneberg, the state geologist, said that populations in Eastern Kentucky are forecast to decline over the next couple of decades. School boards are faced with the difficult proposition of declining student enrollment and a declining tax base. And it’s not easy to simply build schools far from the flood plain in Eastern Kentucky, he said, because there just aren’t a lot of alternatives in a topography defined by steep hills and narrow valleys.

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Brashear said his own home was spared because his family lives so far from water. After moving back to Perry County, where he and his wife grew up, the family bought a house near Hazard in a new subdivision called Phoenix Place, built atop a strip-mined mountain. Brashear said his family’s safety atop the old strip mine made him feel guilty, especially since he blames the intensity of the floods, which Haneberg estimates as a one-in-600-year event, on coal executives.

Since the 1970s, surface mining has affected more than 7 percent of Central Appalachia, according to satellite data compiled by the nonprofit SkyTruth, rupturing a landscape larger than the state of Delaware. But, Haneberg said, it’s hard to unequivocally say the severity of floods was caused by surface mining, though he’s pursuing the question with a National Science Foundation grant.

“Right now there’s no clear-cut answer,” said Haneberg.

Back at Heritage Kitchen, as construction crews cleared mud, dust and damaged flooring from the offices below her apartment, Carter said she worries about making a decent life for Ophelia. As much as she worries about her daughter’s future, Carter is equally concerned about the folks who feel, as she does, a deep connection to their communities and to the land. While some may leave the area because of the political neglect and infrastructure issues that plague the region, many folks in Eastern Kentucky — like families across the country who bear the brunt of climate change through fires, hurricanes, drought and flooding — are wrestling over how best to remain in the place they call home.

“It’s going to be incredibly heartbreaking if we have to accept that it’s not okay or safe anymore,” said Carter. “My biggest fear is the amount of grief people will go through if they have to give up on a place that’s literally within them.”

School officials hope to rebuild West Whitesburg Elementary, Ophelia’s school, within the next two years.

This story about school flooding was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.