Kentucky Floods Damage Irreplaceable Appalachian Archives

Appalshop, a cultural center in Whitesburg, Kentucky, is still assessing damage from the historic floods

The Appalshop building during the floods Appalshop staff

The catastrophic floods in eastern Kentucky that left dozens of people dead or missing have also devastated a regional cultural center that holds over 50 years of Appalachian art and historical records.

On Thursday, the Kentucky River in Whitesburg, Kentucky, swelled to over 20 feet, overwhelming the downtown area with floodwaters. Among the drowned buildings is Appalshop, a renowned local nonprofit that teaches courses and manages an evolving archive of Appalachian oral histories, film, music, art and cultural items.

“Some of the film from Appalshop was all through the streets and everything,” Austin Caudill, a Whitesburg resident, tells the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Billl Estep and Austin Horn. “We could lose not just businesses but history.”

The center is insured, but as rescue and recovery efforts in the area continue and the community begins the long, exhausting process of digging their belongings and lives out of the mud, it won’t be able to fully assess total damage for weeks, or perhaps months.

Archive materials
Archive materials damaged in the flood  Oakley Fugate / Appalshop

“We’re not really certain at this point of the total damage to our facilities, but it's estimated that there are heavy losses to our materials and the buildings,” Appalshop operations director Roger May tells West Virginia Public Broadcasting (WVPB)’s Eric Douglas. 

An initial investigation showed the first floor of the center, as well as an outbuilding, are totally flooded, with the theater and radio station suffering substantial damage, Appalshop communications director Meredith Scalos tells Bruce Schreiner, Anita Snow and Timothy D. Easley of the Associated Press (AP).

Founded in the late 1960s, Appalshop’s aim is to document life in the Appalachian community; it also provides arts and job training, and it has grown into a respected cultural hub in the region. In addition to the archives, the center houses a record label, radio show, arts gallery, film institute and community development program. The archives contain over a decade of carefully documented regional history dealing with the area’s unique, often painful past, on topics such as coal mining, folklore, politics, labor disputes, religion and art and population trends, according to the AP. Also in the archives are historical items like musical instruments, books, photographs and handwritten diaries from residents in coal-mining communities, reports the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Recovery efforts at Appalshop
Recovery efforts after the historic floods Oakley Fugate / Appalshop

In a letter to the public on its website, Appalshop thanks well-wishers and directs the outpouring of support it has received back to people in the Kentucky and West Virginia areas recovering from the flood.

“Please continue to share our resources page,” the center writes. “We've managed to raise thousands in direct aid and get immediate help to so many folks in need thanks to our community, and the needs will continue in the days and weeks ahead.”

This historic natural disaster is now a part of the region’s story, and Appalshop is committed to chronicling it.

“We are documenting as much as we can,” Scalos tells the AP. “Of course, some of our equipment was lost and is not recoverable. In the day and age of the smartphone, it’s a lot easier, of course. We’ll be looking at ways to pull the stories together, for sure.”

May tells WVPB that recovery is daunting, but the community has weathered difficult times in the past.

“We'll get through it,” he says, “by looking out for each other and taking care of each other.”

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