Kentucky expected to face enormous costs after devastating floods

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Kentucky is facing enormous financial costs to rebuild after massive flooding in the eastern part of the state that has left 37 people dead and hundreds homeless.

While the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is still assessing the toll, Gov. Andy Beshear (D) said the state would need “significant dollars,” describing the disaster as “the most devastating flooding event our state has ever seen.”

“When we look at infrastructure, when we look at the massive damage here – roads, bridges just eaten away, the water system just heavily damaged, some wiped out. It’s going to take significant time and significant dollars to restore what was destroyed. [There was] real significant damage to water and wastewater systems,” Beshear said Wednesday.

Jonathan Jett, superintendent of public schools in Perry County, Kentucky, said in an interview with The Hill that he expects it will require millions of dollars to rebuild public infrastructure in his school district.

“This will take years,” Jett said. “I have two schools with significant, significant damage. I’m waiting to hear from structural engineers and architects who are coming next Wednesday to see if we can even go back in the building. I’m not having people in there before I know it’s structurally sound.”

FEMA press secretary Jeremy Edwards said in a statement to The Hill that the agency doesn’t estimate costs of an ongoing recovery.

“Every disaster is unique, and we will continue to work with our state and local partners to ensure they have the resources necessary during this difficult time,” Edwards said.

One of the most potentially expensive consequences of this year’s Kentucky flooding is the damage to the state’s water and sanitation infrastructure, Beshear said.

On Wednesday, he said there were “still just over 18,000 service connections without water, 45,600-ish service connections under boiled water advisory, [and] 21 water systems under limited operation due to power outages and storm damage.”

On Thursday, those numbers had improved to 14,000 homes without water and 41,000 connections under the boiled-water advisory, but the number of inoperational wastewater systems had tripled from one to three. Thirteen waste systems were discharging material from their collection systems into the environment, the governor said.

A lack of personal flood insurance for their homes poses one of the most significant financial threats to a full recovery from the disaster for many Kentucky families.

“One of the most devastating parts of this flood is that most people’s homes are not going to be covered by insurance. A lot of people don’t have insurance. Most people don’t have flood insurance, which is really expensive, and it’s going to be a real challenge on the rebuilding side,” the governor said.

Flood insurance is generally less common outside of high-risk areas. According to FEMA, most of Kentucky is not considered to be high risk.

“The way they set those areas hasn’t been updated and hasn’t kept up with changing conditions,” said Melissa Roberts, executive director of the American Flood Coalition. “It’s a huge problem in the center of the country too where the mapping, I think, doesn’t capture the true risk of flooding.”

Private donations of money and supplies have been pouring into the affected areas.

The Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief Fund had raised $3.4 million as of Thursday, counting more than 24,000 individual donations with more than $120,000 already distributed out to families and individuals.

“This is, I think, the only fully transparent fund that is audited, that will be subject to legislative oversight,” Beshear said. “We are taking zero administrative fees. Every single dime is going to go to these families.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also expressed grief at the damage and economic toll facing the parts of his home state.

“Even the families who were lucky enough to get out unscathed have lost homes, businesses, and heirlooms. In many communities, the waterlogged destruction is absolute,” he said in a statement earlier this week.

“Late last week, I joined with every member of Kentucky’s congressional delegation to support the Governor’s request to the President for a Major Disaster declaration to give our first responders federal help,” he added.

Biden last week declared a disaster in Kentucky and ordered more federal aid for the state.

Eastern Kentucky congressman Hal Rogers (R) encouraged residents of seven counties to apply for FEMA assistance earlier this week to begin the process of rebuilding their homes. He said he asked Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to get more FEMA personnel on the ground in eastern Kentucky to help people “apply for assistance who do not have transportation.”

As climate change makes extreme weather worse and more frequent, there are expected to be more flooding events, and more intense weather events, in the future.

A February study found that as a result of climate change, financial loss from floods will rise by 26 percent in the U.S. by 2050.

Roberts of the American Food Coalition noted, however, that this isn’t just a future problem, saying the world has already seen the impacts in the last five to ten years.

“We’re getting more devastating flood disasters, we’re getting them in more places, we’re getting them more frequently and the costs are rising,” she said.

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