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In 1957, his grandma floated his street in a canoe. Now, the waters are rising again

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Kentucky, at least 16 people have died after flash flooding in the eastern part of the state. This is following a series of storms. Several hundred people have been rescued so far. And Governor Andy Beshear said today emergency crews are still out searching.

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ANDY BESHEAR: The people impacted by this are going to lose just about everything. And we believe that there will be thousands that have impacted.

KELLY: Well, one of the towns inundated by floodwaters is Whitesburg, Ky., which is where we find Dee Davis. He is publisher of The Daily Yonder. He's on the line now. Mr. Davis, welcome. How are you doing?

DEE DAVIS: I'm good. I'm good. We've got a mess here, but you know, I'm safe. I lived on the top of a hill. A lot of people had it hard. The water came up quick, and it was violent, and it was rough.

KELLY: Yeah. I saw a video you posted last night. This is - it was the Kentucky River, and it was rising up to the Main Street Bridge and then right over it.

DAVIS: That's right. We're used to floods. Well, sometimes the water spills out of banks. This was not like anything we're used to. Rains had been pretty present the last few weeks. And then the other night, this gush. This was just too much water.

KELLY: What are you hearing from your neighbors? Do they have power? Do you have water? Do you have what you need?

DAVIS: I think some people in town have water. I don't. Some people have lost power. Some people have lost internet. You know, I've got my grandchildren and my 6-year-old with me and it's like if the bacon and ice cream sprinkles hold out, then I think we'll survive.

KELLY: (Laughter) Then your crew will be all right.

DAVIS: Yes, that's right.

KELLY: I gather - I mean, for local businesses, it must be beyond a mess. We spoke this morning with the owner of the Kentucky Mist Distillery there in Whitesburg. This is Colin Fultz. He said he's at the distillery, and it's just mud everywhere that he's trying to clean up.

DAVIS: Yeah, there's mud. All those places right along the river, like moonshine distillery, took it rough. And, you know, there are a lot of people who live in flatter ground. And the water came up so quick, some people got evacuated in the middle of the night. Some people didn't get out. When the flood comes, there's no talking to it.

KELLY: No talking to it. Yeah.

DAVIS: It's just rough. And when it's over, what are you going to do? You just - you got to grab a shovel, help people out best you can. You know, I was a kindergartener when the 1957 flood hit Hazard. That was the record flood here in Whitesburg. And this one beat it by about six feet. And I remember being out in the yard and watching my grandmother float by in a canoe because her car flooded out. And she had a bag of groceries in her lap. And she waved at me and I waved at her. And that's like - I was 5 years old. I've never been able to let go of that image, you know. It's just crazy things happen when the water gets up. And, you know, when there's loss of life, you think, in Kentucky, we had terrible tornadoes in the west and now this, it's like, you wonder when it's going to start raining frogs.

KELLY: One other place to ask you about, an institution there in Whitesburg, which is Appalshop, the media and arts and education center that documents Appalachia that has these incredible archives about Appalachia. Do you have any idea how they're doing? Did they survive the flood?

DAVIS: My wife works there, and I worked there for 25 years. I think that they took it pretty hard. Beyond their studios, the theater got washed away. I think, you know, the building held up. The archive, which is really precious cargo, I think they got - heard that they got most of the stuff to higher ground. But that's - you know, that's the discourse of Appalachia. That's - those are the stories of miners and quilters and people who have built this place and learned the lessons the hard way. And it's really important information. And it's a treasure.

KELLY: It sounds like y'all have been through this many times, too many times. Is there something the community does to come together to help each other out?

DAVIS: Well, I mean, in Appalachia, just like in a lot of rural communities and a lot of urban communities, you know, what's you got is each other. It's not like there's going to be a grant or an investment that changes the politics of helping your neighbor out. And sometimes it feels bleak, but once you start lifting a few loads and, you know, you're part of something.

KELLY: Well, Mr. Davis, I'm glad you're safe. I'm glad you're family's safe. And I appreciate your taking the time to speak with us today. Thank you.

DAVIS: Yeah, no sweat - appreciate it.

KELLY: That's Dee Davis on the line there from Whitesburg, Ky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.