Residents, Businesses in Flood-Damaged Area Work to Recover

By Bill Estep | March 29, 2021

BEATTYVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Thursday afternoon, workers were repairing the walls at Amy Jones’ physical therapy office in Beattyville. On up Main Street, employees were carrying a shiny new steam table into Los Two Brothers Mexican restaurant. Nearby, Anthony Saat was scrubbing walls in the building where his girlfriend plans to reopen her Red River Tattoo Company.

It was just another day of digging out from one of the worst floods on record.

“They’re every day hustling,” Lee County Judge-Executive Chuck Caudill Jr. said of the recovery effort.

The Kentucky and other rivers and tributaries surged out of their banks nearly a month ago after heavy rainfall, causing flooding across a region that included Estill, Breathitt, Owsley, Powell, and Clay counties.

The state has not finished cataloging the damage but has received reports of damage to a record number of homes.

Lee County, where the three forks of the Kentucky River come together, got some of the worst of it.

At one point on March 1, water was several feet deep in downtown Beattyville. Several residents said it was the worst flood in more than 60 years.

The water came up quickly, preventing residents and business owners from saving much.

Tom Jones, an attorney and former circuit judge, said he went to his office early on March 1 to try to save books and equipment but had to leave much of it behind because of concern about getting trapped in the office by the fast-rising water.

“We had so little time,” he said.

Jones’ office is in the same 100-year-old building as his wife’s physical therapy business; the floor in her office is lower, and the water reached a depth of 7 feet there, Jones said.

Though reports are still coming in, officials so far estimate 50 homes in the county were damaged so badly that people can’t move back in, Caudill said.

Teresa Mays, director of the Beattyville Downtown Alliance, said 35 to 40 businesses were affected.

Once the water receded, people got down to the weary work of cleaning mud from homes, stores and streets, pulling up sodden carpet, tearing out drywall, and throwing away damaged furniture, equipment and stock.

In the days after the flood, debris from businesses was piled on sidewalks downtown, and large trash containers the city set out on mud-covered streets overflowed.

Now, most of the trash containers are gone and the streets are much cleaner.

“I’m impressed. I didn’t think it would look this good this soon,” said Tyler Phillips, the circuit clerk and a captain with Lee County Search & Rescue.

`You Have To Clean Again And Again And Again’

There is still cleanup going on, but several businesses have turned to the work of installing new electrical outlets and panels, replacing drywall, putting on fresh paint and buying new equipment.

Debbie Dunaway got her business, Beattyville Florist, open on Wednesday after weeks of cleaning and painting.

“You clean and then you have to clean again and again and again,” she said. “We just had to get back open. That’s what puts food on the table.”

William Campbell, who has a barber shop on Main Street where the floodwaters reached a depth of just over 5 feet, 7 inches, said he was able to reopen a week after the flood with equipment on loan from his father, also a barber.

He wanted to get back in business quickly so he wouldn’t lose his customers, so he hasn’t finished fixing the walls or cleaned out the storage room.

“My stuff’s clean. My floor’s clean. That’s what matters,” Campbell said.

Jessica Hernandez, owner of the Los Two Brothers restaurant, said when the manager, Lexi Townsend, called her on Sunday evening, Feb. 28, to say the water was coming up, she thought the flooding would be inconvenient, not devastating.

She ended up losing thousands of dollars worth of food, supplies and equipment.

It cost $10,000 just to re-stock food and supplies, she said, but the restaurant was on track to re-open Friday after almost a month out of business.

“We’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” Hernandez said.

`We’re Really Starting From Scratch’

Other businesses are still weeks from finishing repairs.

Tony Hobbs, master of the Proctor Lodge 213, a Masonic lodge that rents space to businesses in property it owns in downtown Beattyville, was working Thursday to clear debris from the Three Forks Tradition, one of two weekly newspapers in town.

Lodge members had nearly finished repairs at another office next door, but had a lot of work left to do at the newspaper office, he said.

“Pretty much demolition right now,” Hobbs said. “We’re really starting from scratch.”

Bob and Linda Smith and their son, Josh, who operate the paper, were working from home and didn’t miss an edition.

Hargis Ross, who owns three buildings, said that at age 75, he had thoughts of selling out and not dealing with the recovery because it would take seven to nine years’ worth of rent to cover repairs.

But business owners practically begged him to make a space for them, so he is.

“It’s a struggle for everybody,” Ross said.

The Red River Tattoo Company, owned by Rebekkah Early, lost its space in another flooded downtown building that the owner doesn’t plan to repair right away, so she plans to set up in one of Ross’s buildings when it’s ready, said Saat, the shop manager.

The shop survived a shutdown that Gov. Andy Beshear ordered last year to slow the spread of coronavirus, only to get shut down by the flood just as hopes for business were picking up because of tax refunds and federal stimulus payments, Saat said.

“We sunk everything we had into our shop,” Saat said.

Most business owners in town didn’t have flood insurance because of the cost and because water hadn’t gotten into downtown for years.

That leaves landlords to shoulder the cost of repairs and business owners buying equipment and stock out of pocket.

Donations Rolling In

Donations have flowed in to help homeowners and businesses, however.

In addition to donations of food, clothing and cleaning supplies from individuals and faith-based groups, Tracy Farmer, a Lexington horseman and entrepreneur who grew up in Lee County, donated $25,000 last week to a relief fund to help downtown businesses and another $25,000 to a county recovery fund, Caudill said.

An organization called Americans Helping Americans, which works in Appalachia, donated $100,000 to the Downtown Beattyville Alliance, said Mays, who also heads the city’s Main Street and economic development programs.

The alliance has set up a committee that will take applications for grants to business people, with the potential for different amounts based on circumstances, Mays said.

Another significant donation rolled in Thursday afternoon.

Father Jim Sichko, a Catholic priest who has a home in Richmond and was appointed by Pope Francis as a missionary of mercy _ his job essentially is to go around doing good deeds _ said $25,000 to $30,000 worth of donations poured in after he put out an appeal on social media about the flooding.

The donations included gift cards, bedding and towels, cleaning supplies, non-perishable food, pet food and diapers.

“It’s humanity at its finest,” Sichko said.

Lexington moving company Vincent Fister donated a truck and crew to haul the donations from Sichko’s house to Queen of All Saints Church in Beattyville _ which was flooded itself _ and Father John Lijana and volunteers unloaded it.

Lijana said one focus will be on helping people as they get back into homes.

Caudill is working on getting mobile homes delivered for people who were displaced. There is still a lot of need even with the donations, so officials hope the federal government will make individual homeowners eligible for assistance.

`We’ll All Be Back, Eventually’

Some Beattyville businesses that flooded a month ago have reopened in buildings outside downtown. Some plan to come back when their old spaces are ready, but there is a concern that some won’t, leaving gaps in downtown.

Mays, however, said she has only heard for sure of one business not moving back to downtown when repairs are done.

Downtown is the heart of the community, she said, and the business people are resilient.

Jones, the former circuit judge, agreed. The town has weathered other floods, and will come through the latest one as well, he said.

“We’ll all be back, eventually,” Jones said. “We’ll get back on our feet. It just takes a little while.”

About Bill Estep

Estep wrote this for the Herald-Leader.

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