The raging floodwaters that left dozens dead or missing in eastern Kentucky also swept away some of the region’s irreplaceable history.
Appalshop, a cultural center known for describing life in the Appalachians to the rest of the world, is cleaning up and assessing its losses, like much of the stricken mountain area around it.
Record flooding on the North Fork of the Kentucky River inundated downtown Whitesburg in southeastern Kentucky, causing extensive damage last week to the renowned repository of Appalachian history and culture. Some of the losses are likely to be permanent, after floodwaters soaked or swept away some of Appalshop’s treasures, including archives documenting the region’s rich, and sometimes painful, past.
“It’s heartbreaking to see our beloved building overcome by floodwaters,” said Appalshop CEO Alex Gibson. “We will recover, but right now we are certainly grieving what has been lost.”
Launched more than half a century ago in part as a training ground for aspiring filmmakers, Appalshop has evolved into a multi-faceted enterprise with a mission to uplift the region. Besides the film institute, it has a radio station, theatre, art gallery, record label and community development programme.
But now Appalshop’s focus has turned inward. The center known for training storytellers is part of one of the region’s biggest stories – as floodwaters covered large parts of the mountainous region, causing deaths and widespread destruction.
Appalshop is insured and the team is still working to assess the full extent of what has been lost and what can be salvaged, said communications director Meredith Scalos.
“It will probably be a week before we know the total of the damage,” she said. “We’re going to be rebuilding for years, not days or weeks.”
The first floor of the main building was flooded by the rapidly rising water. When cleanup crews went in, they found a thick layer of mud. The radio station and the theater suffered extensive damage, Scalos said. The archives were also damaged. The top two floors were undamaged. Another Appalshop building also sustained extensive damage.
Initially, the highest priority has been to clean up and assess the archives, which included tens of thousands of items documenting cross-sections of Appalachian life over the decades, Scalos said.
Scalos said she feared the loss of unique artifacts that tell the region’s history.
Archival materials include film, photos, oral histories, musical performances, magazines and much more. The plays delved into topics such as coal mining, labor disputes, politics, religion, folk art and population trends. Some of the material was swept into the streets of Whitesburg.
Appalshop officials are contacting federal emergency officials to determine the availability of assistance, Scalos said. Appalshop receives funding from many sources, including large foundations and individuals. The businesses have grown over the years, but the mission has remained constant – to showcase Appalachian traditions and promote the creativity of its residents.
For decades, it has been at the forefront of efforts to reshape the region’s image by highlighting the richness of its history and culture and giving Appalachians a voice to share their stories, said Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, which has an office in Whitesburg.
“Over time, Appalshop’s films, plays and recordings have exposed the hollowness of hillbilly stereotypes,” said Davis, who previously worked at Appalshop.
Recalling his time at Appalshop, he said: “Our attitude was, ‘We may be hillbillies, but you’re no better than us.’ And that came through in our work.”
The flood has meanwhile brought the centre’s busy schedule to a halt. The Summer Documentary Institute film screening, intended to showcase the work of the interns, was postponed indefinitely, Scalos said.
“This event is the culmination of the youth interns’ summer of work where they show their documentary films to friends, family and the community before submitting the films to film festivals,” Scalos said. “This one is especially messy.”
Appalshop had started planning the autumn film screening schedule, but that too will be postponed.
Although dealing with its own crisis, Appalshop has not lost sight of its mission. Acknowledging the historic nature of what has happened in recent days, the center is trying to map the flood for future generations.
“We document as much as we can,” Scalos said. “Obviously, some of our equipment was lost and can’t be recovered. In the day and age of smartphones, of course, it’s a lot easier. We’ll be looking at ways to collect the stories, for sure.”
Snow reported from Phoenix.