After devastating flood, an Eastern Kentucky nonprofit works to save irreplaceable archive

·5 min read

WHITESBURG, Ky. — Floodwaters that ripped through Eastern Kentucky last week ravaged more than homes and businesses. Many pieces of Appalachian history were damaged as well.

Employees and volunteers with Appalshop, a local nonprofit that was founded 53 years ago in Whitesburg, have been conducting recovery efforts in the week since the storm, which swept through several counties on July 27 and July 28. At least 37 people died as a result of the storm, Gov. Andy Beshear has said, and hundreds of families have been displaced as well.

The people working to restore Appalshop's archives survived the historic storm. Now, they're trying to help preserve the history of the region.

Sylvia Ryerson, a volunteer helping with recovery efforts, said workers don't know how many items in the nonprofit's archives were destroyed. They're hopeful, though, she said, that the archive can be restored.

"This archive has been a labor of love for so long, and it's the largest regional archive of Appalachian history. And so it's an incredibly precious and invaluable resource for our communities," said Ryerson, a volunteer and former employee with WMMT 88.7 FM, Appalshop's radio station. "And it's devastating to see, you know, cassette tapes with mud on them. And just the amount of people's stories and histories that are stored here is, it's hard to quantify."

Appalshop opened more than 50 years ago as a local film workshop that aimed to teach people in the region about filmmaking while documenting real life in the Appalachian community. The goal, according to Appalshop's website, was to "offer a counternarrative to the one that made Eastern Kentucky the poster child for American poverty."

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Its mission, and its efforts, have grown since 1969, and since the group moved its office to a former bottling plant in the heart of the town in 1982. Appalshop still produces videos and films about the region — there's enough film at its Whitesburg office to stretch all the way past Nashville, it says on its website — and it's also opened the June Appal record label and Roadside Theater in 1974, the local WMMT radio station at 88.7 FM in 1985, and takes part in several community efforts and initiatives.

The radio station is not currently broadcasting in the aftermath of the flood, according to a statement from Appalshop. It will likely be more than a month before it hits the airwaves again.

Appalshop's impact on the community goes beyond the content it has created. Before the flood, its community development program raised money to build a walking bridge across the Kentucky River, and raised enough funds to create a solar pavilion that has powered its offices with solar panels since 2019. It's also created a culture hub — a partnership with nearby businesses and Letcher County community members in that encourages them to use their talents to boost the the local economy.

Many contents in Appalshop's archive are irreplaceable. The climate-controlled vault inside the downtown office included audio and visual records that are one-of-a-kind, with more than 4,000 hours of footage along with photos, records and other objects that have been collected over the years that offer a deeper look into the people and history of the Appalachian region.

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Alex Gibson, Appalshop's executive director, said recovery efforts didn't really pick up until Wednesday, nearly a week after the flooding began. At that point, Gibson said, workers were finally able to get proper equipment and enter the building, which had been flooded. Ryerson said there was a call for volunteers on Tuesday and they "did the first big load out of the Appalshop archive" right after.

Appalshop's sprawling office is located in Letcher County, next to the North Fork of the Kentucky River. Waters on that river, Gibson said in an opinion piece for The Courier Journal, usually flow peacefully between 2 and 3 feet – last week, though, was a different story.

"We had 20 feet, 20.9 feet of rain," Gibson told The Courier Journal on Wednesday. "And so if if anyone can imagine what an additional 20 feet of rain would do to a business, that's what it did to ours."

The Appalshop, a cultural media arts center in Whitesburg, was flooded Wednesday the 29th in Eastern, Ky.Aug. 3, 2022
The Appalshop, a cultural media arts center in Whitesburg, was flooded Wednesday the 29th in Eastern, Ky.Aug. 3, 2022

The region has flooded before, Gibson noted. People in the area stay prepared with insurance and contingency plans, he wrote in his Courier Journal op-ed, "because we know that while water can be gentle and a calming balm to a busy day, it can also rip houses from their foundation and sweep people downstream in a matter of seconds."

But last week's historic floods, he wrote, were unprecedented.

"When I say that we have never seen anything like this," Gibson wrote, "it is no exaggeration."

The organization, along with volunteers, haven't focused all their efforts on the archives. Some people have spent time cleaning the Appalshop building, Gibson said, but others have been hard at work providing supplies and other support to people around the region and to raise money and help other community organizations rebuild.

Volunteers go through stuff being brought out of the Appalshop, a cultural media arts center in Whitesburg, it was flooded Wednesday in Eastern, Ky.July 29, 2022
Volunteers go through stuff being brought out of the Appalshop, a cultural media arts center in Whitesburg, it was flooded Wednesday in Eastern, Ky.July 29, 2022

As part of their effort to raise money, Appalshop is working with Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange, OK Recordings, Kentucky Performing Arts and Louisville's 91.9 WFPK radio station to host a concert at 8 p.m. Friday at The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts' Bomhard Theater. Hymns For The Holler: A Concert for Appalshop will feature performances by Joan Shelley, Ben Sollee, Daniel Martin Moore, Joe Manning & Lacey Guthrie, among other local artists.

Tickets for the concert are $25 and can be purchased at the Kentucky Performing Arts website. All the money raised will go toward's Appalshop's recovery efforts, the group said in the statement.

The devastating flood, Gibson said, is a historic moment for the region. And while recovery has been the focus this week, some members of the Appalshop community have been recording what they've seen.

Someday, he said, films and other artifacts from the flood of 2022 will have its own place in the archive.

"You can't stop artists from making art no matter what you do to them," Gibson said.

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Reach Ana Rocío Álvarez Bríñez at; follow her on Twitter at @SoyAnaAlvarez

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Kentucky flooding: Appalshop looks to save archive, preserve history