Reporters notebook: African American voices from the floods of Eastern Kentucky

The mountains and their unspoiled beauty of that region offer a powerful visual narrative that’s hard to escape.
With the exception of one businesswoman who lost everything, their voices were largely silenced.
Published: Aug. 15, 2022 at 10:43 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 16, 2022 at 1:33 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - As a journalist, some stories have a strong personal connection, and that’s the case with flooding in Eastern Kentucky which left 39 people dead.

The mountains and their unspoiled beauty of that region offer a powerful visual narrative that’s hard to escape.

However, in the constant coverage from print to a multitude of media platforms, critical voices were obviously missing.

I’m talking about African Americans who call the region known as Appalachia home.

With the exception of one businesswoman who lost everything, their voices were largely silenced.

Related: ‘He was a real-life superhero’: Teen dies days after helping Kentucky flood victims

Having attended and graduated from Eastern Kentucky University, I know many of the backroads, its people, and their stories.

I felt a deep and personal obligation to head back to my home state and share their experiences through one of the worst hardships they ever faced.

Recovery seems to be a never-ending exercise in flood-ravaged Eastern, Kentucky.

Mother Nature’s painful scars remain deeply etched throughout the Appalachian landscape in places like the Letcher County town of Neon.

Community responders answer urgent calls for help, as Red Cross relief workers hand out meals to families in need.

It’s both saddening and depressing for Reverend Steve Peake. His home stayed intact but across the road. All that’s left are fragments from the roof of his garage.

“I lost two cars and my pickup truck,” he said.

Peake heads up the Corinth Missionary Baptist Church in Letcher County.

When it comes to sharing such a devastating loss, he thinks voices from all sides need to be heard, publicly.

Reverend Peake said, “I think so because minorities are missing in the county. I would say in Letcher County we have 20 blacks.

Also read: Samaritan’s Purse to help with Kentucky flood recovery

Connie Owens is a well-known activist in the Perry County community of Red Fox.

The village town south of Hazard was hit hard.

“From my perspective, the story was not complete unless you heard from all of the people”, Owens said.”When you leave out and don’t stop and hear and leave out people who live in a particular area you don’t have the whole story.

Red Fox is the place we found Kenny Williams still gathering trash from what the high water left behind.

“Some people lost everything. Some people lost a little. I was lucky I lost a little,” he said.

His voice and perspective of survival are missing from what critics call an incomplete and unfinished narrative.

Case in point: President Biden’s visit to the flood-ravaged part of the state.

The presidential photo op didn’t show a single black person in the presence of the leader often called the consoler in chief.

However, Census.Gov estimates there are more than three thousand African Americans living in more than a dozen counties impacted by damaging flood waters.

Life-changing pressures for one African American business owner in the Letcher County community of Isom did make it into the mainstream media. Keeping it real for Gwen Christon means having to start over. Nothing could be saved at the IGA store she owns.

“You keep thinking, ‘This can’t be real. This can’t be real,’ but after a few days it sinks in and you realize it’s real”, she told WBTV

Christon began working at the store as an employee in 1973 and bought the business years later. Spoiled merchandise in the parking lot reveals a total loss.

“Emotionally, it really hurt me because I know that is the end of something I worked very hard for and something I was very proud of. You look forward to buy some new and keep going.”

Pastor holds on to past memories during a period when African American miners made up a big part of the rank and file at a time coal was king here in the Bluegrass State.

In this devastated community, he’s hoping more diverse voices like his will be acknowledged by the news media.

Reverend Steve Peake said,” When the floods come when the hurricanes come, they don’t discriminate. Rich or poor, black or white, things happen, but this allows us to say hey…we don’t have so much differences.”

Meanwhile, Gwen Isom is pursuing a Small Business Administration loan from the federal government and hopes to be back in business by January of next year,

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