Left with little, one Kentucky county slowly picks up the pieces after record floods

Estill County resident Joey Dobson surveys the yard of his aunt’s house, which was damaged by flooding in 2021 floods in Kentucky. Photo by Brooklyn Kelley | Staff

Brooklyn Kelley

With no way in and no way out, citizens of Estill County in Eastern Kentucky were left to watch as floods destroyed the fabric of their lives.

According to the National Weather Service, on March 3 the Kentucky River crested at 41 feet in Estill County – more than 17 feet above flood levels. Houses were hidden by water that carried debris from already ravaged towns. Many residents lost personal belongings, already hard to come by in a town with a poverty rate of 27 percent according to a 2016 assessment.

Estill was just one of Kentucky’s many counties severely affected by flooding in the first week of March. More than 49 local disasters were declared across the state, according to Kentucky Emergency Management. Estill declared a state of emergency on Monday, March 1, following heavy weekend rains.

A local landmark, the bridge crossing the Kentucky River, is marked with water levels following local floods. The markings show that this is the worst flood in county history. Estill’s Emergency Management office posted photos and videos of the damage on Facebook.

“This flood is like nothing most of us have ever seen,” one post said. “Everyone please be safe and stay home if possible.” Estill EMA also reported power outages in the county.

Since the town is located on the Kentucky River, flooding is a frequent occurrence. This time, the county seat of Irvine was cut off from aid as the water rose to cover roads. Residents were not able to evacuate due to road conditions, but their homes were not safe either.

The Saturday following the flood, Joey Dobson stood in what remained of his aunt’s house reflecting on a sunny day that belied the damage done to his community. In his aunt’s house, the bottom portion of the walls was ruined and were demolished and only fragments of the flooring remained. In a second room, flooring was covered in debris that was coated in mud – the only thing left intact.

“Nobody in our family had ever seen this house even flooded,” Dobson said.

Dobson said that the house was his grandmother’s when she was living, and the last time his family saw water reach the house was in 1957, but that damage was minuscule compared to this. He was concerned for older community members who sustained property damage and would not be capable of repairs nor able to recover financially.

Few Estill residents have flood insurance because of its high cost and not living in a declared “flood zone.” Still, residents like Greg and Sharon Hardy sustained damage that left almost nothing salvageable.

The Hardys live in a trailer; Greg said the pair lost nearly everything after the flood waters rose to cover the top of the trailer, leaving only a small portion of the top of the roof exposed. Their floors remain caked in mud and their belongings ruined by the water that swept everything from its place.

“There’s just so much damage there,” Greg Hardy said. The hardest loss for this couple was the sentiment box they had been keeping with their daughter’s first haircut clippings, first outfit, and other mementos.

Fortunately, the couple is able to stay with a family member and friends of theirs are organizing a GoFundMe page to help rebuild the Hardys’ life.

Repairs in Estill will be slow to come by. A first step towards healing was made on Thursday, March 11, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency visited Estill for a first assessment of the damage. This kind of survey will determine what kind of federal assistance the county can receive.

But assistance has arrived from other sources as well. As the waters continued to rise, Estill natives came together to shelter and provide for their neighbors.

One local business, Mountain Adventures, has recently partnered with 2 Farms Meet to provide citizens with food. Mountain Adventures is a produce store and 2 Farms Meet a meat provider. Now, Mountain Adventures is buzzing with activity as volunteers band together to give clothes, food and other items to those in need.

“For it to be such a bad tragedy, it’s such an awesome and cool, humbling thing,” said Jen Richardson, an Estill resident who is gathering and distributing supplies out of her music venue on Main Street.

River City Music and Art, co-owned by Richardson and her husband, closed their doors to local performers and instead began welcoming volunteers to help with flood relief. This group of volunteers is comprised of both community members and outsiders who want to help with the devastation. Richardson said that they are giving flood victims totes and buckets filled with supplies like bleach, paper towels, trash bags, latex gloves, toilet paper and sanitizing wipes. Food, baby essentials, hygiene products and water are available for people to pick up as needed.

Outside of River City is a hot dog stand called Diggin’ Dogs, run by Marion Burrough and his wife. These neighbors also pitched in on the relief effort – even Burrough’s grandson helped on Saturday evening as many volunteers and citizens attempted to pick up the ruins of the town.

Burrough handed out food to those who were either helping or in need.

“I don’t think it’s really going to hit them until after the cleanup,” Burrough said. Though he has only lived in Estill County for seven years, Burrough spoke of the charm of the small town. He bragged on the citizens’ initiative to help their neighbors during this trying time.

Native Steve Tipton said Estill has seen a huge response to the county’s needs from people donating supplies. He said that now they need people’s time to help with the rebuilding process.

Other avenues of aid also support local businesses. Alex and Ali Grise, owners of “Old Fashioned Wicks,” are donating 100% of the net proceeds from their Kentucky Mountain Moonshine candles to flood victims in Estill. These candles can be purchased through direct messaging their Instagram account, @oldfashionedwicks.

Estill native and recording artist Sarah Beth Terry has designed and is selling “#EstillStrong” t-shirts for $25 and is donating all proceeds to the Estill County Flood Relief. These shirts can be purchased through her website.

Physical donations can be made to several churches and outreach teams in Estill, with an emphasis food items, cleaning supplies, clothes, toiletries and other hygiene products. These items can be taken to River City Music and Arts at 211 Main Street or to Helping Hands Outreach at 1589 Richmond Rd in Irvine.

An earlier version of this article underreported the river’s crest as 38.9 feet on March 2.