When floods destroy homes, hidden costs can devastate survivors

When rising floodwater surrounded her home the morning of July 29, Carolyn Combs felt deja vu. The year before, floodwater had filled the first floor of her family’s home in Jackson, Ky., damaging living spaces, storage and her two teenage children’s bedrooms.

Combs, her husband and their children spent months living on the second floor while the lower level was gut-renovated, a project that was nearly complete when storms came in 2022. Before evacuating this time, they moved as many belongings as possible upstairs in hopes of avoiding the previous year’s losses.

But this time, nearly 10 feet of water accumulated, reaching the second story.

“Everything inside was completely, completely gone,” said Combs, 37. “We had to get rid of everything.” She estimated her family had spent $6,000 to $7,000 replacing items like furniture and appliances after the first flood. Now, they had to start over.

When they evacuated, Combs and her daughter had each carried a backpack filled with clothes and small belongings such as phone chargers. Hours later, realizing the damage that was likely, her children returned in a neighbor’s kayak to grab critical medical care items for Combs’ husband, who is disabled.

The costs quickly added up. Three nights in a hotel room cost nearly $500. With no place to cook, the family bought all meals, about $80 per day. Combs remembered being shocked to discover that they had spent $75 on laundry alone in the early days after the flood.

The Combses needed hygiene supplies, like toothbrushes and feminine care products. They bought food, crates and litter boxes for their pets.

After major disasters like the Kentucky floods, broad analyses of costs factor in losses reported to insurance companies or government agencies. But smaller expenses are often overlooked and rarely reimbursed, even though they can take a significant toll on an individual or family bank account.

“It’s just the simple things,” Combs said. “Groceries, everyday needs, plus taking care of my kids, all while working two jobs. It’s hard on us trying to rebuild.”

The day-to-day costs of rebuilding

The flooding in eastern Kentucky was severe enough that President Joe Biden approved a major disaster declaration for 13 counties. This allowed residents to receive aid from government agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration.

The Combses knew their house was in a flood zone: In 2009, the house was damaged by about 3 feet of floodwater before Combs and her daughter moved in. At that time, the household was approved for FEMA assistance, which included a year of paid flood insurance.

The Combses then took over those payments for a few years until the expense — more than $500 a month, Combs said — became unaffordable. So when faced with flood damage again, they understood they would not receive assistance from the agency or insurance. Combs did apply for a loan from the Small Business Administration but was denied because of her credit score, she said. Without government aid, the family has relied on organizations like the American Red Cross and community support to make ends meet. A church group helped clean out the house, including throwing out the refrigerator, stocked with spoiled food. Aspire Appalachia, an eastern Kentucky nonprofit organization, installed new drywall and bought some of the major fixtures the Combses needed to replace, including a toilet, a washing machine and a dryer.

Family and friends have also pitched in, covering the price of the hotel stay, buying items from an Amazon wish list and paying for the teenagers’ back-to-school needs. Critically, the Combses have been able to stay at a relative’s property for free while their house is repaired.

They have been blessed, as Combs sees it. And yet, on a Friday evening in March, nearly eight months after the flood, she found herself feeling overwhelmed as she reviewed receipts. The family is still paying for water and electrical services despite not living in the damaged home. The downstairs ceiling is unfinished, and they still need a new heating system.

Combs estimated that they had spent a few thousand dollars to get back home. Adding the past flooding expenses brings the total above $10,000.

She said she hopes to move back into the house before her birthday April 30, and expects to spend more on replacing missing household items. Priceless keepsakes from Combs’ mother, who died after contracting COVID-19 the same month as the 2021 flood, remain lost.

“I had several things that were hers that are gone,” Combs said. “Things like that are the hardest things to think about.”

Beyond FEMA assistance

According to a report from the Ohio River Valley Institute and the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, 6 in 10 households damaged in the 2022 floods reported incomes under $30,000, and most did not have flood insurance. For some, like the Combses, the policy cost was prohibitive; residents in the area say they’ve been quoted more than $1,000 per month.

Others were not considered to be living in a flood zone until after the storm. That was the case for Polly Barse Fleming, who said her house in Neon, Ky., had been in her husband’s family for more than a century and never experienced flooding before last July.

Four days before the heavy rains, Barse Fleming, 42, bought a new car for the first time. The $20,000 down payment for the Toyota Highlander, a practical choice to navigate the rural roads to the middle school where she teaches science, was a significant and carefully considered expense. Then virtually overnight, her family needed to take out loans for tens of thousands of dollars to address disaster costs.

The house now relies on jacks to stay upright. Barse Fleming applied for FEMA funding, and after an in-person assessment of the damage, the agency sent $40,000. FEMA bases these figures on reported losses and needs, explaining that its support will not make a survivor “whole” but is meant to assist with basic living expenses.

Barse Fleming’s family put the funds toward a down payment on a double-wide manufactured house. This choice was strategic: She said her insurance agent had explained that the double-wide’s policy would cover flooding, saving the family an extra monthly cost. This was a selling point because even with FEMA funding and preapproval for a Small Business Administration loan, the personal expenses have been mounting.

In addition to jacks for the house, the family needed cleaning supplies and extra gas money for the longer route that Barse Fleming takes to work to avoid damaged roads. She also lost her garden, which used to provide the family with tomatoes, squash, peppers and other produce — food she also gave to her pet tortoises and lizards.

Like Combs, Barse Fleming credits others for providing critical assistance in covering these costs. One donation that stood out was an upright bass from WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, a nonprofit, for her 13-year-old daughter, a musician.

“Many of us have pieced our lives back together from the generosity of others,” Barse Fleming said. “There is no way our family could have afforded new contents of the house in addition to all else we were trying to do.”

Floods washing wealth away

According to Wallace Caleb Bates, a community outreach coordinator with Aspire Appalachia, the organization that helped the Combs family, reckoning with daily expenses after a disaster is a common experience. He told of a flood survivor who realized she didn’t have any cookware — of how the items you take for granted can feel particularly daunting to replace.

Scott McReynolds, executive director of Housing Development Alliance, another local nonprofit group, said it wasn’t just household items that were lost. Many residents lost cars, equipment, toys or furniture left out in their yards. His house was left untouched, McReynolds said, but he needed to pay about $2,500 to repair his driveway.

Even families whose properties avoided damage faced extra costs after the storm. Much of the region remained without water and with power off for weeks. Months later, residents are still paying inflated prices for high-demand goods such as housing materials and might need to drive farther to make purchases while local stores rebuild.

“I wonder how much wealth in the area — and we’re a pretty low-wealth area in the first place — literally washed down the creek,” McReynolds said.

Combs said some people had told her that they would leave if they were in her position, but she has not given too much thought to that idea. Family and friends are here, in addition to her two jobs and her children’s school.

There are financial considerations. Despite living in a flood zone, the Combses own their land, which was passed down through Combs’ husband’s family. If they moved, they would have to pay for land, rent or a mortgage, and would still be shouldering the costs for new furniture, clothing and the other household supplies they are working to replace.

“You just want to go home, you know?” Combs said. “Everybody wants to go home. But I don’t know that I could do it a third time.”

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