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Despite the dangers, deep roots make Appalachia hard to leave

This tiny slice of town off a state highway in eastern Kentucky has been home to Brenda Francis and her husband, Paul, for decades.

Paul Francis was born 73 years ago in this house, a yellow and brown one-story that, like many residences in Garrett, is nestled in a valley between high, wooded hills. The retired school teacher loves it here and his parents donated the house to the couple about 40 years ago.

But after another flood — this one possibly the worst they’ve seen — Brenda Francis said it’s over. He joins many others in this corner of Appalachia who see this latest disaster as a devastating blow to their way of life. Some say they are considering moving away, despite their deep roots.

Frances, 66, said her husband wants to stay: “But not me. I don’t want to live here anymore, and he knows it. So we’ll get out of here.”

The Appalachian region of Kentucky experienced hardship. The coal economy withered and took well-paying jobs with it. The opioid crisis has flooded cities with millions of painkillers. The outlook was so bleak that many people left, reducing the population in many counties by double digits over the past two decades. In Floyd County, where Francis is from, the population has dropped 15 percent since 2000. And annual household income in many of the counties hardest hit by last week’s flooding is just over half the national average. term of about 65,000 dollars.

But many stayed, with ties to their communities, their families and their history here. The flooding that hit the area last week is causing even some of those stalwarts to reconsider, especially in and around Garrett, a community of about 1,300 people founded by a coal company in the early 1900s.

The region’s strong social fabric and family connections give pause to people considering leaving home, said Ann Kingsolver, a professor of Appalachian studies at the University of Kentucky.

“Social capital is really important,” Kingsolver said in an email. “These are the resources that people have by investing in social networks of relatives and neighbors over many years – a kind of wealth beyond monetary value.”

When the financial crisis of 2008 hit, he said, many young people moved back to rural communities in Appalachia because they had a place to live and childcare options.

Kingsolver said there is little rental or motel space available in these rural areas, but flood victims often get help and shelter from relatives and neighbors nearby.

Pam Caudill lives on the same street as her son, who has helped a lot since flood waters reached 4 feet (1.2 meters) at her home in Wayland, just minutes from Garrett.

Her husband died of a heart attack in May, and the floods tested her resolve to stay in her small town.

“I’ve thought about it, but here’s the thing: It took everything my husband and I could do to buy a house,” she said through tears. “It’s hard to let go of something you’ve worked so hard for.”

So she and her son will see what can be salvaged in her home and hope that the foundation will remain solid.

“It was my husband’s house. it’s my kids’ home,” said Caudill, who temporarily moved into a shelter at the state park over the weekend. “The town of Wayland has always been their home.”

Two miles outside of Garrett, 104-year-old Annis Clark rode out the storm alone as she lost power and her basement flooded. She and her husband built their home in the 1950s and it stayed long after he died in the 1980s, said her son, Michael Clark.

“He is alive. I don’t know another way to put it,” said Clark, who attended Garrett High School and then moved to Lexington, where he worked in television production and business. “I have no doubt he will stay here until it’s over.”

Clark was buying supplies for her Monday in nearby Prestonsburg. He graduated from high school in 1964 and said many of his classmates left like him to find work. In many parts of eastern Kentucky, he said, “unless you wanted to be a miner, your choices would usually be teachers.”

In Garrett, Brenda Francis despaired at the inches of mud that had flowed into the area below their home, which was lifted after a flood in the 1950s when her husband’s parents lived there.

“When you grow up, you can’t clean all that up. We are completely exhausted,” Francis said. “How are we going to get this mud out of here?”

Despite his wife’s frustrations, Paul Francis happily cleaned the family home, piling toys into a 1970s truck his father bought brand new. Glancing at the rubber boots, he smiled as he prepared to attach a squeegee to clean the mud off his grandchildren’s toys.

Their grandchildren are one of the reasons Brenda Francis wants to move away, higher up in Prestonsburg, where the kids live. He said like many in town, they don’t have flood insurance on their home — but they do have a potential buyer. He hopes the fact that the home’s living spaces have remained dry will make it a desirable property.

Her grown sons love the town of Garrett, but “they’re all grown up and have their own families now. They don’t want to come back here,” she said as her husband’s pressure washer hummed in the background.

“Who would like to come?” he said. “It’s still flooding here.”

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