The hidden costs of rebuilding after a flood
As the rising floodwaters surrounded her home on the morning of July 29, Carolyn Combs felt deja vu. The year before, floodwaters had filled the first floor of her family’s home in Jackson, Kentucky, damaging living quarters, storage areas and the bedrooms of her two teenage children.
Ms Combs, her husband and children lived on the second floor for months while the lower level underwent a complete renovation, a project almost complete when the 2022 storms hit. Before evacuating this time, they brought as many belongings as they could upstairs, hoping to avoid the losses of the previous year.
But this time almost 10 feet of water accumulated and reached the second floor.
“Everything inside was completely, completely gone,” Ms Combs, 37, said. “We had to get rid of everything” She estimated her family spent between $6,000 and $7,000 to replace items like furniture and appliances after the first flood. Now they had to start over.
When they were evacuated, Ms Combs and her daughter each had a backpack with them containing clothing and small items such as phone chargers. Hours later, realizing the likely damage, their children returned in a neighbor’s kayak to retrieve essential medical supplies for Mr Combs, who is disabled.
The costs quickly added up. Three nights in a hotel room cost almost $500. Since there was no place to cook, the family bought all the meals, about $80 a day. Ms Combs recalled being shocked to find they had spent $75 on laundry alone in the first few days after the flood.
The Combses needed toiletries like toothbrushes and feminine toiletries. They bought food, boxes and litter boxes for their pets.
After major catastrophes such as the Kentucky floods, claims reported to insurance companies or authorities are taken into account through comprehensive cost analyses. However, minor expenses are often overlooked and rarely reimbursed, although they can put a significant strain on an individual or family’s bank account.
“It’s just the simple things,” said Ms. Combs. “Groceries, necessities and taking care of my children while working two jobs. It’s hard for us to try to rebuild.”
The daily cost of rebuilding
Flooding in eastern Kentucky was so severe that President Biden authorized a disaster declaration for 13 counties. This allowed residents to receive help from government agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration.
The Combses knew their home was in a flood zone: in 2009, flood water about three feet high damaged the home before Mrs Combs and her daughter moved in. At that time, the budget for FEMA support was approved, which included one year of paid flood insurance.
The Combses then covered those payments for a couple of years, until the cost — more than $500 a month, Ms Combs said — became prohibitive. When faced with flood damage again, they knew they would have no agency or insurance support. Ms Combs applied for a loan from the Small Business Administration but was turned down because of her credit history, she said. With no government help, the family relied on organizations like the American Red Cross and community support to make ends meet. A church group helped clean up the home, including emptying out the refrigerator, which was filled with spoiled food. Aspire Appalachia, a nonprofit in eastern Kentucky, installed new drywall and purchased some of the major fixtures the combses needed to replace, including a toilet, washer, and dryer.
Family and friends have also lent a helping hand, paying for the hotel stay, purchasing items from an Amazon wish list and paying for the teens’ back to school needs. Crucially, the Combses were able to stay at a relative’s property for free while their home was repaired.
You have been blessed as Ms. Combs sees it. And yet on a Friday night in March, nearly eight months after the flood, she felt overwhelmed as she reviewed the receipts. The family still pays for water and electricity despite not living in the damaged home. The ceiling on the ground floor is unfinished and they still need a new heating system.
Ms. Combs estimated they spent a few thousand dollars getting back home. Add in past flooding costs and that’s over $10,000.
She hopes to move back into the house before her April 30th birthday and expects to spend more money to replace missing household items. Priceless keepsakes remain lost from Ms Combs’ mother, who died after contracting Covid-19 in the same month as the 2021 flood.
“I had several things that were hers that are gone,” Ms Combs said. “Things like that are the hardest things to think about.”
Beyond FEMA support
According to a report by the Ohio River Valley Institute and the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, six out of 10 homes damaged in the 2022 floods reported incomes of less than $30,000, and most did not have flood insurance. For some, like the Combses, the political cost was prohibitive; Residents in the area say they’re getting more than $1,000 a month.
Others were not considered to be living in a flooded area until after the storm. That was the case with Polly Barse Fleming, who said her home in Neon, Kentucky, had been in her husband’s family for more than a century and had never experienced a flood before last July.
Four days before the heavy rains, Mrs Barse Fleming, 42, bought a new car for the first time. The $20,000 down payment for the Toyota Highlander, a handy choice for navigating the country lanes to the middle school where she teaches science, was a significant and carefully considered expense. Then, practically overnight, her family had to borrow tens of thousands of dollars to cover the costs of the disaster.
The house now relies on jacks to stay upright. Ms. Barse Fleming applied for FEMA funding, and after a personal assessment of the damage, the agency wired $40,000. FEMA bases these numbers on reported losses and needs, stating that their support does not “cure” a survivor but is intended to help with basic living expenses.
Ms Barse Fleming’s family put up the money for a down payment on a double-width prefab home. The choice was strategic: She said her insurance agent had stated that the Double-Wide policy would cover flooding, saving the family additional monthly expenses. This was a selling point because even with FEMA funding and pre-approval on a Small Business Administration loan, personal spending has increased.
As well as jacks for the house, the family needed cleaning supplies and extra gas money for the longer commute Mrs Barse Fleming takes to work to avoid damaged roads. She also lost her garden, which used to provide the family with tomatoes, squash, peppers and other produce – food she also gave to her pet turtles and lizards.
Like Ms. Combs, Ms. Barse Fleming credits others with providing critical assistance in meeting these costs. A notable donation was an upright bass from WoodSong’s Old-Time Radio Hour, a non-profit organization, for her 13-year-old daughter, a musician.
“Many of us have put our lives back together from the generosity of others,” said Ms. Barse Fleming. “In addition to everything else we were trying to do, there was no way our family could have afforded new content in the home.”
Floods wash away wealth
According to Wallace Caleb Bates, community outreach coordinator at Aspire Appalachia, the organization that helped the Combs family, anticipating daily expenses after a disaster is a commonplace experience. He told of a flood survivor who found she had no cookware – how it can be particularly daunting to replace the things you take for granted.
Scott McReynolds, executive director of the Housing Development Alliance, another local nonprofit, said it wasn’t just household items that were lost — many residents lost cars, equipment, toys or furniture left in their yards. His home was untouched, Mr. McReynolds said, but he had to pay about $2,500 to fix his driveway.
Even families whose property avoided damage faced additional costs after the storm. Much of the region was left without water and electricity for weeks. Months later, residents are still paying inflated prices for high-demand goods like building materials and may have to travel further to shop while local businesses rebuild.
“I wonder how much wealth in the area – and we’re primarily a fairly low-income area – has literally been flushed down the drain,” said Mr. McReynolds.
Ms. Combs said a few people had told her they would leave if they were her, but she hadn’t given the idea too much thought. Family and friends are here, in addition to her two jobs and her children’s school.
And then there are the financial considerations. Despite living in a flooded area, the Combses own their land which has been passed down from Mr Combs’ family. If they move, they would have to pay for land, rent or a mortgage, and would continue to bear the cost of new furniture, clothing, and the other household items they are working to replace.
“You just want to go home, you know?” Ms. Combs said. “Everyone wants to go home. But I don’t know if I could do it a third time.”