Nine years ago, severe flooding in Eastern Kentucky’s Floyd County buried McDowell Elementary School in a layer of mud, temporarily displacing about 300 students.
Flooding had hit the school at least three other times since 1989, which isn’t surprising. It sat next to Frasure Creek in a FEMA-designated flood hazard zone. Although insurance helped the school district pay for cleanup, because of its soggy history, the cost of flood insurance on that property soared to more than $100,000 a year.
“I was in there shoveling out mud myself,” recalled Henry Webb, who was superintendent of Floyd County schools at the time. “It was not a great situation. We want schools for our kids that are safe and secure.”
Recognizing that the floods would only continue, if not worsen, the Floyd County Board of Education voted to close McDowell Elementary in 2017 and move its students as part of a countywide consolidation plan.
Now, following the catastrophic July 28 flooding that devastated much of Eastern Kentucky, other school districts in the region might need to weigh similar decisions.
Gov. Andy Beshear last week estimated the expense of rebuilding, repairing and refurnishing the region’s flooded schools at more than $100 million.
“Think about, when we build a new school, what that costs,” Beshear told reporters at a news conference. “That’s significant work.”
In coming months, will it make more sense to rebuild flooded schools in flood zones? Or to try to move students to higher, dryer ground — where any is available — which could require long bus rides on meandering mountain roads?
“There is higher ground. The problem is accessibility,” said Perry County schools superintendent Jonathan Jett.
“There’s a lot of strip-mined property on top of the mountains,” Jett said. “But to get a road that is accessible and meets (Kentucky Department of Education) requirements is extremely difficult and very costly.”
Nearly 2,300 public schools around the country — about 2 percent of the total — sit in so-called “100-year” flood zones, in every state, according to a 2017 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee recently proposed spending $200 million to relocate 14 schools in flood zones in his state after repeated deadly floods last year. The Tennessee legislature scrapped that idea, saying the state government should not interfere with local school siting.
Back in Eastern Kentucky, Knott County school officials say there are no plans to move the flooded Hindman Elementary School out of its Troublesome Creek flood zone.
The school underwent a major classroom addition and kitchen renovation just two years ago, at a cost of nearly $4 million in bond debt. Until power can be restored to the building, it won’t be clear how much of that work survived, officials say.
Even with the district’s flood insurance coverage, there will be “a significant amount” of uncovered expense, said Knott County schools superintendent Brent Hoover.
“This was a hundred-year flood, at least. So what can I say, other than we hope and pray that it never happens again,” Hoover said.
This doesn’t feel like the right time to make long-term decisions, Hoover added.
“Our entire county is devastated,” he said. “We’ve got folks who are just in disbelief at what they’re facing. The loss of lives — we’ve got folks at funerals right now.”
35 schools in flood zones
There are 35 public schools in flood zones in the 12 counties — Breathitt, Clay, Floyd, Knott, Leslie, Letcher, Magoffin, Martin, Owsley, Perry, Pike and Whitley — currently designated by FEMA as eligible for individual federal disaster assistance because of the recent flooding, according to the Pew study.
In some places that flooded, such as Buckhorn in Perry County and Fleming-Neon in Letcher County, most of the communities lie in flood zones. There is little available higher ground on which to build schools without removing them from the area.
“There’s only so much flat land in these areas where you can place a structure the size of a school,” Beshear said at a news conference Tuesday when he was asked about relocating flooded schools.
With the three or four schools in the region that likely were destroyed by floodwaters and will need to be replaced with new buildings, “we ought to at least look at what the options are,” Beshear added. “Even with just the normal flooding that can happen in these areas, as part of life, when you’re spending tens of millions of dollars to rebuild some of these structures, we absolutely have to give thought to it.”
By FEMA’s definition, a 100-year flood zone is an area near water with a 1 percent annual chance of flooding, or a 26 percent likelihood over the span of a 30-year mortgage.
But flood risk is an imperfect science based on a lot of changing factors. A building in a flood zone might not flood. Or it might — like McDowell Elementary — flood four times in 24 years.
Many of the schools damaged or destroyed by the July 28 flooding did indeed sit in flood zones. That includes Robinson Elementary School in Perry County, built in 1961 on Troublesome Creek. It lost an exterior wall and part of its roof and probably will need to be rebuilt from scratch, said Jett, the superintendent.
Another Perry County school, the K-12 Buckhorn School, also sits in a flood zone and was submerged. It will be inspected by engineers and architects to determine the severity of the damage, Jett said. The loss of both schools for at least this academic year will leave the district scrambling to find spots for their 565 students, he said.
The school district had minimal flood insurance on those schools, Jett said.
“The flood insurance we had would have been for if mud had gotten into the building, you know, to clean that out,” Jett said. “It’s not something that’s going to replace the cost of the buildings, to replace or to do major renovations. That’s a question that’s going to have to involve FEMA or the Red Cross or other organizations like that. Because we wouldn’t have the bonding potential to replace both schools.”
But other schools wrecked by the raging waters were outside the flood zones, if barely. Knott County Central High School is outside but adjacent to a flood zone from the Right Fork of Troublesome Creek. However, the record-high flooding last month crossed the short distance — a paved parking lot — and poured into the school, anyway.
At least the contents of Knott County Central High might be partly salvageable, Hoover said. The furniture and equipment inside Hindman Elementary and Knott County Area Technology Center are a loss, he said.
‘Call it a 600-year flood’
Under the state’s administrative regulations, updated last year, new school construction is not allowed in flood zones unless the “finished floor elevation” is at least 12 inches “above the 100-year flood plain.”
FEMA advises against opening schools in flood zones at all, citing the risk to students and the rebuilding cost to taxpayers after a disaster.
But when it’s unavoidable, school districts have raised schools’ elevation — at considerable expense — by hauling in earthen fill or even building on support columns, according to a FEMA report on the subject.
That sort of talk seems like an insurmountable challenge right now to Denise Yonts, schools superintendent in Letcher County. Yonts’ district had six facilities flood: the central office, the alternative education building and four schools. It also lost staff members to the flood waters.
All of the flooded buildings should be repairable, although the contents of several are a complete loss, Yonts said. The district’s flood insurance will only cover part of the costs, she added.
The question of whether to rebuild in flood zones is one that she has considered, Yonts said.
“We’re figuring all that out,” Yonts said.
“But we’re barely a week out and we’re still busy locating all our people, checking on their safety, making sure our staff are taken care of and have a place to be,” she said. “We’re just having to work our way through the long-term plans as we go, honestly.”
Whether it’s encouraging or ominous, experts say what happened to Eastern Kentucky last month was far worse than a 100-year flood. It brought devastation to new and unexpected places not highlighted on FEMA flood maps.
Possibly aggravated by both climate change and extensive surface mining in the region, rivers and creeks surged high above their previous record levels, the experts say.
“The rain and flooding were unprecedented in our lifetime and in the hydrological record books,” William Haneberg, director of the Kentucky Geological Survey, wrote in an essay last week. “Rounding to the nearest century, we can confidently call it a 600-year flood.”
Haneberg said Tuesday that he’s not in a position to advocate for policy. But relocating schools out of flood zones — as well as other critical infrastructure, such as fire stations and hospitals — is certainly a decision that local officials need to seriously consider once the facilities have proven vulnerable, he said.
“Climate scientists expect more frequent extreme events as we move into a generally warmer and wetter future in Kentucky, which means both that the areas currently designated as 100-year floodplains may experience more frequent flooding and that the size of 100-year floodplains ... will increase,” Haneberg told the Herald-Leader.
“It will be up to each school board and its community stakeholders to decide how to weigh factors such as a likely increase in the frequency and severity of floods against the costs of repeated repairs or rebuilding in a less flood-prone location,” he said.