Feb. 9, 2023

Everywhere Radio: Filmmakers Preserve Stories from East Ky Flood

Whitney Kimball Coe talks with filmmakers Dee Davis, Mimi Pickering, and Joel Cohen about their new half-hour documentary, East Kentucky Flood. They share why they felt compelled to gather and share stories of those who witnessed the July 2022 flooding that devastated the region that Davis and Pickering call home.  “I think the intensity of the moment is powerful,” Davis said. “People will be able to tell these stories for 50 years. They’re not going to forget them. There is this urgency at the time, which is, ‘I have seen something, mister, and I have to tell you this.’ That’s important to be someone who listens deeply to those stories because within them are just the basic components of being human.”

The Center for Rural Strategies film tells the story of the flood by those who endured it. The stories reveal not just what happened July 2022, but what lies ahead for communities across East Kentucky. The half -hour program will premiere at 10 p.m. Wednesday, February 15, 2023, on KET,  Kentucky’s public television network, and will air other times throughout the month of February. 

The video will be available for streaming on Thursday, February 16 at dailyyonder.comWatch a preview.

About our guests

Dee Davis

Dee Davis is the founder and president of the Center for Rural Strategies. Dee has helped design and lead national public information campaigns on topics as diverse as commercial television programming and federal banking policy.

Dee began his media career in 1973 as a trainee at Appalshop, an arts and cultural center devoted to exploring Appalachian life and social issues in Whitesburg, Kentucky. As Appalshop’s executive producer, the organization created more than 50 public TV documentaries, established a media training program for Appalachian youth, and launched initiatives that use media as a strategic tool in organization and development.

Dee is on the board of the Kentucky Historical Society; he is a member of the Rural Advisory Committee of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, Fund for Innovative Television, and Feral Arts of Brisbane, Australia. He is also a member of the Institute for Rural Journalism’s national advisory board. He is a member of the Board of Directors for the Institute for Work and the Economy. Dee is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship. Dee is also the former Chair of the board of directors of Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation.

Mimi Pickering

Mimi Pickering is an award-winning filmmaker and director of Appalshop’s Community Media Initiative. Pickering’s documentaries often feature women as principle storytellers, focus on struggles for equity and justice, and explore the efforts of grassroots communities to address local issues that frequently reflect global concerns. In 2005, her film The Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man was selected by the Librarian of Congress for inclusion in the prestigious National Film Registry. Other documentaries include Chemical Valley, an examination of environmental racism in West Virginia’s Kanawha Valley that aired on the PBS series P.O.V, and Hazel Dickens: It’s Hard To Tell The Singer From The Song, a portrait of this singer/songwriter whose feminist country ballads, union anthems, and blue collar laments combine the traditional and the political. Most recently Pickering and Anne Lewis completed Anne Braden: Southern Patriot, a documentary on the life and legacy of this legendary civil rights leader, journalist, teacher and mentor to three generations of social justice activists. As CMI Director, Pickering leads Making Connections News, a multi-media storybank exploring sustainable and just economic options for renewing Appalachia’s economy and creating healthy communities. She is also a team leader for All Access EKY, a collaboration that combines storytelling, youth empowerment, health provider education and community outreach to advocate for and increase access to all birth control options in Appalachian Kentucky.

Joel Cohen

Joel Cohen has earned numerous awards and critical acclaim over his almost 30 years as a video producer/director/editor. His national public television experience started with a three-year run of The 90’s, a magazine style show that featured the work of independent producers from around the world. He was also the co-creator and formally the co-executive producer of the five-time Midwest Emmy-award–winning series Check, Please!, a restaurant-review show featuring “citizen-reviewers”.

He has collaborated on numerous video projects with the Center for Rural Strategies across rural America, including a documentary about the recovery of rural Louisiana and Mississippi after hurricanes Rita and Katrina. With Rural Strategies he has also done video work for the Kellogg Foundation, Duke Endowment, National Rural Assembly, Rural LISC, NeighborWorks, Oprah’s Angel Network, Housing Assistance Council, and many local organizations.


Above: Dee Davis, Mimi Pickering, and Joel Cohen

Episode Transcript

Whitney Kimball Coe :
Welcome back to Everywhere Radio. I’m your host, Whitney Kimball Coe. Last July, 13 communities in Eastern Kentucky were ravaged by catastrophic flooding that claimed the lives of 43 people and left thousands more without shelter, their homes and businesses swept away by floodwaters. In the weeks and months following the flood, whole school systems closed and emergency services struggled to reach those in the most isolated corners of the region.
This month, the Center for Rural Strategies releases a film that tells the story of the flood by those who endured it. East Kentucky Flood premieres on Kentucky Public Television on February 15th. It spotlights neighbors turned heroes and the local mutual-aid groups that organized cleanups and monetary support immediately after the disaster.
On today’s episode of Everywhere Radio, we talked to the makers of the documentary. Dee Davis , Mimi Pickering , and Joel Cohen are veteran filmmakers and have worked together before to document community responses to other disasters in places like Louisiana and Mississippi following hurricanes Rita and Katrina.
For Dee and Mimi, however, this documentary hits a little closer to home, as they live in Letcher County, and they watched the flooding unfold from their front porch. Mimi, Dee, and Joel, thank you so much for saying yes to joining me on Everywhere Radio today. How are you doing?
Dee Davis :
Good. Good. This is a joy.
Mimi Pickering :
Yeah, thank you for the invitation.
Joel Cohen :
Thank you.
Whitney Kimball Coe :
Joel, you’re usually behind the scenes on Everywhere Radio. It’s nice to be able to interview you.
Joel Cohen :
Well, we’ll-
Whitney Kimball Coe :
We’ll see.
Joel Cohen :
… withhold judgment on that.
Whitney Kimball Coe :
Dee and Mimi, I wanted to start with you asking you about the flood on July 27th, 2022, that evening, that day, and the days that followed. Can you describe for me what you saw out of your window and maybe what images are sticking with you still today?
Dee Davis :
Well, we knew that it rained a lot. We knew that the water was up and we kind of knew that the town was shut down, but when we went outside it was like nothing. We live on the hill, so we could look right down into Main Street. The river is usually small in its banks. It must have been 300 yards more wide there.
My grandson Elliot and I walked down to the Methodist church where we could kind of peer out. It was like, holy moly, this is something of different proportions than we expected or seen.
Mimi Pickering :
We could see from our house way on the hill that where normally you see asphalt and road, you were just seeing brown. It turned out that was all the floodwaters. They had totally covered the roads in and out of town and was just all pretty horrifying.
Whitney Kimball Coe :
Mimi, I know your offices are downtown at Appalshop. And Dee, our offices, Center for Rural Strategies are also downtown Whitesburg below the hill where you all live. What did you discover each of you when you went down to those offices finally?
Mimi Pickering :
Well, Appalshop did get about six feet of water in the main building. Sort of tragically, our archive, which had some 20 million items of film, video, photography, paper was on the part of the building that was closest to the river. That part of the building was just totally inundated with water.
Dee Davis :
We’re kind of half a story up here on Main Street and about the width of a brick I think is how much the water missed getting up into these offices. That was a kind of good fortune that we thought we better make some use of it is because everybody else was kind of torn up.
That’s part of why we decided to make this film was just because we had the capacity and we had a need to help get some of these stories out. Because the water missed us, we felt like that was a message we should be doing something with what the fates were telling us. You feel lucky you survived. You see all this pain, you see all these people have lost their places. You get these reports. I clicked on a newspaper and saw that the 42nd person found was my grade school child. We lived across the street from each other and he’d been washed away. They discovered the body eight miles away from his home.
There’s a kind of urgency about where are we going from here, what do we do, what’s my job? I think a lot of people were lining up to help any way they could. People coming in to feed the hungry, people around here, those who escaped mucking out everybody’s house, getting the junk out. It’s an elaborate set of responsibilities that come dealing with the flood, and you got to get it done quick because the mold is toxic and you’ve got to make it happen while you’re in shock.
Whitney Kimball Coe :
Mimi and Joel and Dee, you’re all seasoned filmmakers and you’ve spent a lot of time documenting events, historical and ordinary, both in your backyard. You’ve also spent time together working on actually a climate disaster recovery effort in the Gulf after Rita and Katrina, I think. I wonder what lessons did you carry forward into the making or the consideration of East Kentucky Flood, this documentary, from those efforts, those past efforts of documenting disaster relief or disaster recovery efforts?
Joel Cohen :
I guess one of the things we learned when we were down documenting the recovery of Katrina and Rita is the depth and breadth of the stories of the individuals and how the moment of the flood is one thing, but how they kind of move forward and how they recover and how they are going to get back their lives that were lost because of the disaster was really quite amazing.
I think that the other part is the urgency of getting the stories, the first stories early so people don’t necessarily start forgetting them or start reworking them. We’re really trying to get the real stories of what really happened to the people is very important.
Mimi Pickering :
One thing I’ve found that it was true in this case, somebody said to me, “Well, you’re asking people to talk about the flood. Is that triggering or very difficult for them?” But in fact, I think the opposite is often true. All the folks we talked to, they wanted to tell their story. They really wanted to let people know what had happened, what they’d experienced.
So many of the folks were telling really terrible things that had happened to them, but were showing so much concern for their neighbors, the people down the creek or up the creek or over in this holler. It was pretty amazing and says a lot about, I think the folks in Central Appalachia, Eastern Kentucky of they really showed their concern for their whole communities. It was very obvious.
Dee Davis :
I would say one of the things that maybe we brought back from all that shooting in the Gulf, and you see some things that are transcendent, people have gone through this experience. There’s good journalists that came in to do the stories. And there were some amazing stories from the Whitesburg Mountain Eagle to the New York Times. Journalists come in and they’d say, “Well, when are the schools going to open,” and talk about mold abatement or was this the 500-year flood or the 1,000-year flood?
People had seen something biblical. They had seen something that was bigger than the news cycle. And it was important just to turn on the cameras and let them tell their story because there’s 100,000 people who went through something and each of them had more than one story. Just getting to visit with these people and give them a space to tell what they saw was what we could do. And so that’s what we felt like was our job.
Joel Cohen :
I think that the point of this particular documentary is not to tell the whole story of climate change and of the way industry that has devastated the region, but to be able to tell the real personal human stories of the people that were affected by the flood. And so we have a subhead of the East Kentucky Flood, some of the stories. This isn’t the whole story, this is just some of the stories that were told to us in the aftermath of this particular event.
Whitney Kimball Coe :
We’ll be right back after this from The Daily Yonder.
Xandr Brown:
Hi, I’m Xandr Brown with The Daily Yonder. Check out The Yonder Report, a weekly podcast rounding up the latest rural news produced by The Daily Yonder and Public News Service. You can listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Whitney Kimball Coe :
Now back to Everywhere Radio. Would each of you maybe share with me a vignette of who did you interview and who is spotlighted in this documentary?
Joel Cohen :
I’ll go first. One of them is photographer Malcolm Wilson, whose photography is heavily featured in the documentary. But he said he took about 2,500 images of the flood and most of them were around the recovery because when he first went out to try and photograph. Him being a photographer, he tried to get out and photograph the flood but couldn’t really get out very far because he’s in Blackey and he was very isolated because of the way the water was.
He said that he couldn’t even look at the pictures that he was taking because of the devastation and because they were just so hard to look at. It took him months actually to be able to go back and look at the photographs.
Malcolm Wilson:
One of the saddest things I saw is there is a pink Mickey Mouse child’s blanket hanging from a tree right up here up the road here. Some little child somewhere on up the North Fork of Kentucky River, that belongs to that child. That was tough. Some things I didn’t photograph that I saw. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Joel Cohen :
I mean, that is incredible for somebody who is such a seasoned photographer. He was a crime photographer in Cincinnati and saw a lot of very horrible things, but he felt that this was the worst thing he had ever seen. It was so hard for him to even look at the photographs that he made.
Whitney Kimball Coe :
These were his neighbors and people he knows and part of his own story too. Mimi and Dee, who are some other voices that you’d like to lift up here?
Dee Davis :
There was this business owner, an IGA grocery there in the small community of Isom that got completely wiped out. The business had been paid for. It was a grocery store for people for some directions 20 miles, but other directions, maybe 10 miles. It was a community institution, and it got completely destroyed.
She and her family, her son had to decide whether to give it another try or just quit. It’s a huge expense to rebuild. And then her decision was that the community depends on the store. There’s 25 people who work at the store and need to earn a living. So she went through several days of just being in shock to deciding to push forward.
Gwen Christon:
We had a little GoFundMe, and to be able to see people make donations of $25 and $50, but they would always make a comment of, “That was my store when I grew up.” It’s generational. They can remember good times. I remember coming in and they would give me a sucker or I can remember coming in and they would give me a cookie. It’s just good memories of coming somewhere where someone cares.
Mimi Pickering :
‘m thinking a number of the folks that we spoke to and that are featured in the film are local people who just immediately set about to help their neighbors and use their resources to get the word out around the country and to solicit donations and help.
I was particularly moved by Terrence and Nicole. They were working as part of East Kentucky Mutual Aid, which is just a volunteer group that had started originally with the COVID pandemic just to help folks that needed assistance in whatever way they could help. But they just went into action immediately after the flood and started receiving a lot of goods like diapers and canned goods and cleaning supplies and all those things.
Nicole Musgrave:
While we were doing the cleanup crews, folks were also still coming into our mutual aid headquarters to get different supplies that we had on hand. We were also giving cash out the door. One thing that was really difficult was just people saying how ashamed they were. That was really hard because it’s like, it’s not their fault. There’s nothing about this that’s their fault. That was really hard in trying to just try and alleviate that feeling of shame that people felt.
Mimi Pickering :
We went with Terrence and Nicole to a woman’s house in Millstone, Maddie, who had been the post mistress for many years and since retired and in her late 70s or 80s. We went in the house and Terrence and Nicole had come there with some other folks, volunteers and just mucked it out, had taken all of the sheet rock down. All of Maddie’s belongings were piled out front in front of the house.
It was just so graphic. You could see where the floodwaters had come some six feet up the wall. Maddie, she’d hung onto the roof, the little porch roof over her front door for I think it was like five hours. It was just a chilling story.
Also, it was just heartwarming to see how folks had volunteered and helped with this house. A lot of the immediate response, I mean I would say the majority of it was volunteer response.
Whitney Kimball Coe :
I wonder if y’all could say a little bit more about why it’s so important to capture these stories at the moment you did as opposed to more into the recovery, further into the recovery. I mean, these are really raw.
Dee Davis :
I think the intensity of the moment is powerful. People will be able to tell these stories for 50 years. They’re not going to forget them. There is this urgency at the time, which is, I have seen something mister, and I have to tell you this. That’s important to be someone who listens deeply to those stories because within them are just the basic components of being human.

Mimi Pickering :
I think we also were concerned that this flooding would be forgotten. There was certainly local state and national news coverage in the immediate aftermath of the flood. But it wasn’t too long afterwards that I think Puerto Rico was hit again. When Hurricane Ian came through Florida, actually all of the volunteer crews picked up and left and went to Florida.
Everybody here knows it’s going to be a long, long haul before people get resettled if they ever get resettled. I just read there are 800 people living in travel trailers right now, and there’s numerous others that are living in the second story of their home or a few people maybe even camping out in tents and living in sheds, people in the state parks. Some of the schools in Letcher County still not able to reopen.
We’re just going to need resources to help rebuild here. It is an area, as Wes Addington says in the film that people have worked here, they’ve mined the coal for over a 100 years that’s really powered the industrial economy and has kept everybody warm in the country for all these years. It’s not really too much to ask to help folks out in recovering here, but we are just afraid that our little region and our little tragedy will get forgotten.
Whitney Kimball Coe :
Truly. And as you’ve mentioned, especially on the heels of additional floods and additional climate events that are happening across the country, the California floods even recently, that these just become part of a ledger as opposed to… I don’t know. What you all are talking about sounds like witnessing to me. You are standing witness to the devastation and to the humanity that emerges in those spaces. That’s really powerful.
Dee Davis :
You get a sense of being connected to other people who are facing, maybe not flood, but they’re facing something. We’re all connected, we’re all vulnerable, and this gives us a chance to be part of something bigger than just what we live day to day.
Whitney Kimball Coe :
I know the purpose of this documentary isn’t to necessarily excavate what’s next, but I wonder if, based on what you’ve observed and collected here, if you have a sense of what are some of the next questions that people are going to be wrestling with? What are the next steps toward recovery?
Mimi Pickering :
I think that housing is the big issue next. The Kentucky General Assembly, our legislature had a special meeting or a special session to deal with the flood and allocated a certain amount of money, but they did not allocate new money for housing assistance. They’re in session now and the hope is that they will, but it’s just that there was a crisis in housing in Eastern Kentucky before the flood and now it’s just really amplified.
There’s a call for housing to be built outside the floodplain. Well, the floodplain just expanded dramatically from what it was. It flooded in places that in anyone’s memory, it’s never flooded before. But now I guess those areas will be considered part of the floodplain, so it doesn’t leave much land left to build on. That’s a real quandary.
The governor has been pushing for some new communities to be built, and some landowners have contributed some formerly strip mined land. There are some efforts to do that, but it’s still going to take a lot of resources. It’s still going to take finding more land that can be used. And it takes competent and energetic and smart leadership too, which we have not always had in this part of the country.
Dee Davis :
I would say that the issues are existential, that where do you want to live? Why do you want to live here? What’s your connection? That this is a place where, I mean, people wanted to live here because they were going to be comfortable. It was the wrong choice. We’re the poorest part of the country, all this Appalachian coalfield.
People live here because they want, to feel connected, they feel like they’re part of a community going forward. If the community’s decimated, then that makes the question of why we hang on here different. I think people are looking right at the Rock of Ages, Jacob’s Ladder hanging down. They’re making these decisions about who they’re going to be and what they’re going to do and what it’s going to take.
I think at first you’ve got muscle memory and you’re tough and it’s willpower, but six months out, 12 months out, 18 months out, those decisions get different. And so I think we’ll all be making some hard decisions here and trying to figure out what kind of community goes forward.
Mimi Pickering :
I was just going to say that it can become like a spiral also. If we already had lost population in the latest census, and if we lose more people who just decide they can’t rebuild here, they can’t make it, then we start to lose our school population and all that entails and property tax and this and that. And so we’re at a real tipping point, a real critical point here in the region already. We need to do everything we can to help people to stay and to build back and build back better than it was before.
Whitney Kimball Coe :
Just a reminder, East Kentucky Flood will premiere on Kentucky Public Television on February 15th at 10:00 PM Eastern, 9:00 Central, and it will be distributed digitally on dailyyonder.com beginning February 16th. We hope you’ll tune in.
We all will have an opportunity in some ways to witness and accompany this community, in these communities, these counties as they grapple with these existential questions that in fact, maybe we are all grappling with. So thank you all so much, Dee, Mimi, Joel for talking to me today. I’ll see you on staff calls and in person sometimes and in other places.
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We’d like to thank our media partner, The Daily Yonder. Everywhere Radio is a production of The Rural Assembly. Our senior producer is Joel Cohen and our associate producers are Xandr Brown and Teresa Collins. Anya Slepyan is our assistant producer. We’re grateful for the love and support of the whole team at the Center for Rural Strategies. Love you, mean it. You can be anywhere. We’ll be everywhere.