By Harper Carlton and Lilli Dubler, Building Kentucky
July 2023 marks one year since what Gov. Andy Beshear called “one of the worst, most devastating” flooding events in Kentucky’s history. On July 27, 2022, a catastrophic amount of rainfall led to flooding that swept through 14 counties in Eastern Kentucky, killing 45 people and displacing thousands more.
Houses, vehicles and personal belongings that were swept away by the flooding littered Eastern Kentucky, damaging bridges and preventing first responders from reaching people stranded among the thousands of tons of debris.
“We knew it was really, really a severe situation and was really going to require an extraordinary situation just to save lives,” said James Ballinger, State Highway Engineer with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC). “We reached out to some of the local emergency responders, county judges, elected officials and asked, ‘well what do you need?’ And they said, ‘what we need right now is help just getting to the people. Our first responders can’t get there.’”
KYTC teams worked tirelessly following the flooding to remove 409,000 tons of flood debris from roadsides and more than 600 miles of waterways. Another 5,791 tons of debris that could not be moved to the roadside was removed from private property, as requested by county governments.
Additionally, nearly 50 diversions were installed to provide temporary access while KYTC inspected 1,096 bridges, 166 of which needed replacement or repair. 81 of those bridges have been completed and 12 more are being readied for contract letting.
“We were able to clear about 800 of the 1100 structures in 2 days,” said Erin Van Zee, KYTC National Bridge Inspection Standards Program Manager. “It was a huge undertaking and crews worked around 14-hour shifts to get it done.”
KYTC also worked quickly to make sure people had places to stay following the flooding. Within 48 hours, KYTC brought in more than 300 travel trailers to serve as temporary housing for those that were displaced.
Families affected by the flooding formed communities through temporary housing.
“I’m thankful for just being here and having a place to stay,” said Jasmine Baker, one of the residents of temporary housing. “It’s a real blessing to have someone who doesn’t even know you say, ‘Hey, I’m going to give you a place to stay.’”
KYTC also worked to recover vehicles that were displaced, successfully returning 48 vehicles to their owners.
“Vehicles have ownership even after they’re relocated by the water,” said John Moore, KYTC Deputy State Highway Engineer. “We’re relocating them to vehicle management sites and trying to reacquaint these vehicles with their owners since they have salvage value.”
Many residents lost their drivers licenses and other forms of identification during the flooding, so KYTC set up pop-up licensing centers throughout the region to replace lost licenses, permits and state ID cards. In total, the department served approximately 3,500 residents.
“Folks needed their IDs,” said Secretary Jim Gray of KYTC. “They needed their IDs for many things and what we did through the pop-up offices was give them access to get new IDs.”
The effort to rebuild Eastern Kentucky following last year’s detrimental flooding is far from over. However, KYTC has worked relentlessly to ensure the recovery process keeps moving forward.