My mother situated me on her hip, took a deep breath, and stepped off our porch into the icy floodwaters. I was 2 years old.
It was March 1974, and the rain had been pummeling Lily, Kentucky, for two weeks. The ground had become so saturated that the flash flood came all at once. By the time my mother had navigated us through the waist-high mix of overflowing creek water, sewage, and debris to higher ground, my father had made it home from work, where he found water reaching the windows of our trailer. Family members came to help and frantically piled some of our belongings into a metal rowboat. When the flood receded, my parents salvaged what they could, but after days of shoveling mud, they found that the floors, furnace, and appliances had been destroyed. My mother says this was the first time she ever saw my father, a Vietnam veteran and auto mechanic, cry.
Central Appalachia has experienced catastrophic flooding once again. In the first two weeks of February, more than eight inches of water fell, causing the Cumberland and Kentucky Rivers to reach their highest levels in 40 years. More than 200 homes have been damaged, and nearly 100 more have been devastated. There have been more than 100 high-water rescues. In Whitley County, where I’m from, a 74-year-old man drowned in his car after he tried to drive through high water to get to his job as a security guard at a coal mine.
I bet most Americans have no idea this natural disaster has been happening. When trouble comes to rural people—whether they’re in Kentucky, California, Montana, or Michigan—the media mostly shrug. The public as a whole is no better, as people seem to have little sympathy for these rural areas. I’ve been asked “Why do people live there, anyway?” These sentiments aren’t directed only at Appalachia. In 2017 President Donald Trump told unemployed people in rural New York that their best solution would be to move to a city. He gave them his condescending blessing, saying, “I’m going to explain: You can leave.”
But people in rural areas value their communities just as much as anyone else. Even after my parents lost nearly everything, they stayed to raise their family in Lily. My parents, and many other people where I am from, say they need night skies undimmed by city lights. They cannot breathe properly in places that lack hills and pastures. Their native topography is in their blood and bones.
Residents of rural areas aren’t the only ones who appreciate the environment, of course, but an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality can take hold when people lose their connection to nature. If coal mining isn’t devouring the mountain in front of your house, then it’s easy to leave all the lights on. If your home isn’t being carried away by floodwaters, it’s hard to feel the consequences of climate change. Folks in rural places aren’t immune to this disconnect. They say they care about the land, yet they often elect politicians who value profit over the environment. Rural voters’ support of Trump is widespread, even though he has been designated by several environmental groups as the “worst president in history.”
This story of our lost connection to nature and the way it affects rural people is not a new one. From the moment Europeans arrived in America, they tried to tame the natural world. Once deposits of natural resources were discovered, perpetuating the idea of wild places and the people who lived there as “other” behooved big industry. Media only exacerbated the portrayal of rural people as stupid, lazy, filthy, and worthless. Throwaway people living in a throwaway place. Americans claim to love the natural world, but we often negate the people who live closest to it. Insulting phrases like the middle of nowhere and flyover country are common parlance in everyday conversations and newscasts.
Besides being irritating, the stereotype of rural people as inferior and separate has also allowed Americans to take the effects of climate change in this area less seriously, to let the devastation slip by unnoticed. By turning a blind eye to rural people, we are turning a blind eye to climate change.
A study released in late 2018 by the American Meteorological Society showed that record wet and dry spells are occurring around the world, and that the events are connected to climate change. The study predicted that the extreme weather would only increase in the future, which means that flooding like the kind that recently hit Appalachia will continue.
In Harlan County, residents of a trailer park had to escape floodwaters with only the clothes on their backs and their babies on their hips. Not far away, in Pineville, concrete-and-metal floodgates that had been installed about 30 years ago were closed for the first time, sealing off the town from danger but leaving the surrounding countryside to drown.
Throughout the region, the heavy rainfall has caused sinkholes and rock slides, which have damaged homes, blocked roads, and derailed a train. Two engines and several cars loaded with ethanol plunged into the Big Sandy River. Residents there tell me that the spilled fuel caused the mountain and the river to burn for two days. Imagine if the San Francisco Bay or the Hudson River burned for two days; images of the blaze would bombard us on 24-hour news channels, activists would march, and good people around the world would raise money to help those affected.
About $1 billion poured in after a fire destroyed part of Notre Dame last spring. Rightly so, as the church is a sacred and storied space. But the 25 million acres of Australia that recently burned are no less holy. The estimated 1 billion animals and at least 30 rural people who perished in the Australian fires should not be considered less precious than the spires of a cathedral, surely. Yet Australian authorities report about $500 million in donations. In Kentucky, the local newspaper reported that Whitley County sustained more than $1 million in damage from the flooding. People are receiving help from the Red Cross, and plenty of locals are showing up ready to shovel out mud or serve food, but there is no national effort to help, because the nation doesn’t notice.
Wrapping our minds around environmental disasters can be difficult; some find it easier to simply look away. For example, when the Trump administration recently rolled back clean-water protections, environmentalists denounced the decision, while farmers and mining companies welcomed it. Most people seemed to note it and then move on. After all, so few of us have a real relationship with a living body of water. As a child, I had a healthy respect for our river’s quiet banks, where I played, and its green water, where we fished and skipped rocks. But I also understood the water’s ability to rise up against us.
Meteorologists are predicting more rain for central Appalachia, and now it’s moving into Alabama and Mississippi. Country people know they will be forgotten; they almost always are. But we can’t ignore the natural world any longer. Our voices and our votes can make a real difference. We have to be like my mother all those years ago, facing the icy floodwaters: We must take a deep breath, then take the first step.