Heavy rain, steep slopes and climate change contributed to catastrophic eastern Kentucky floods
Gwen Christon had never seen the small creek behind her IGA grocery store in Isom, Ky. flood before.
But during the historic flood that went on to kill 39 people and devastate eastern Kentucky, that little creek engulfed the narrow valley with six feet of water; swallowing up the highway, Christon’s grocery store, and practically everything else in its path.
“My shelves, my displaced shelves had been lifted up, there was just food and groceries and everything in disarray inside the building,” she said.
Christon started working at the store when she graduated high school in 1973. She bought the place in 1998 and has run it ever since.
Last week she finished up the accounting on her inventory: $280,000 lost in the floods. Between the spoiled food and the mud that caked the floors, she had to call in a biohazard team to deep clean the store, which she does plan to rebuild with help from a disaster assistance loan.
A few years before Christon bought the building, she had a flood evaluation, but the bank deemed she wasn’t in a flood zone.
“I know that a lot of people are talking about climate change, but to be honest with you I’ve never dealt into that,” she said. “I’ve never thought about whether it’s been damaging or whether it’s not been damaging.”
The coal extracted from mines in Appalachia has helped Kentucky keep the lights on and the air conditioning blowing, but it’s also warming the planet. Burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas have rapidly increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the planet’s atmosphere.
Those gases trap heat, and have already warmed the planet 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the dawn of the industrial era. Kentucky has seen at least a 1.5 degree increase in annual average temperatures since the 1970s. Warming is increasing the frequency of heat waves, droughts and extreme weather events. It’s also expected to bring more rain to the region, according to the 2017 Ohio River Basin climate report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Chris Barton, a professor of forest hydrology and watershed management at the University of Kentucky, said the 2017 study could already be outdated because of how many record rainfall events have happened since then.
“Is that something that’s on a decade-type of change or is this really the effects of climate change?” Barton said. “I speculate that it’s the effects of climate change.”
A flood unlike any other
In the days before the flooding, most of Kentucky was unusually dry.
But over five days in late July, a series of thunderstorms repeatedly moved across the same region, bringing as much as four inches of rain an hour, according to the National Weather Service of Jackson.
While it didn’t rain continuously at that strength, radar estimates suggest that six to 16 inches of rain fell in the five-day stretch in northern Clay and southern Owsley counties, east through southern Breathitt and northern Leslie counties, into Perry, Knott and Letcher counties.
“I honestly don’t think this area has seen anything like this, at least, in recorded history,” Barton said.
The rain fell across the steep worn tops of the Appalachian Mountains and poured into the narrow creek valleys, or hollers, where many people live.
“Mainly the flat land is in the floodplain. That’s where the roads are, that’s where the power lines are, that’s where people build their houses and live,” Barton said.
The rains inundated the small headwater streams that run through the hollers and bottomlands between mountains, Barton said. That flooding grew worse where creeks met the rivers, creating enough force to bend steel, flip vehicles, tear out tree trunks and sweep away homes and bridges.
In Whitesburg, the North Fork of the Kentucky River rose to nearly 21 feet before the gauge failed, surpassing the previous 1957 flood record by more than six feet.
The rainfall totals observed from July 25 through July 30 were more than 600% above normal.
Barton estimates the flood was at least a 500-year event, but that concept will change.
“Now that event becomes part of the record so if we have another 10-inch rain event next year, it becomes a hundred-year event and so on and so on,” he said.
The connection to climate change
Hotter temperatures increase evaporation. Warmer air also holds more moisture. So as the planet warms, it’s supercharging the water cycle and contributing to heavier rains and flooding.
Scientists with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have found that heavier rains will increase the risks of flash flooding and river flooding across the planet. In the U.S., heavy rains are becoming more intense and more frequent, especially in the Midwest and Northeast, according to the 2018 National Climate Assessment.
One study from the nonprofit Climate Central found 90% of 150 weather stations across the U.S. had seen an increase in hourly rainfall intensity (total rainfall divided by total hours with rainfall) since the 1970s, particularly in the Ohio Valley.
Barton said Kentucky’s climate has been in a particularly wet period with several of the state’s highest annual rainfalls occurring in the last five years.
Poring over a 50-year data set of weather events in Robinson Forest in eastern Kentucky, Barton is trying to better understand if this warmer, wetter period in the state’s climate history is cyclical or part of a long-term change.
“I think that’s the issue we are worried about, the long-term effects of climate change, and, are we going to see this become a more frequent pattern of rainfall in this area?” he said.
In order to determine the role that climate change plays in extreme weather, scientists are turning to a new kind of research known as “attribution science,” which strives to measure how climate change makes extreme events more severe and more likely to occur.
Right now that science is still relatively young, but as climate models improve, attribution science will become more definitive. Regardless of whether climate change will be directly attributable to this event, climate experts say that these are the kinds of extreme weather events that Kentucky will see more of in a warming world.
Climate change and the future of rural Appalachia
Staring out over the meadows of a reclaimed strip mine in Perry County, Lester Brashear contemplates how the weather has changed in his lifetime.
“When I was small, younger, we would stay out of school sometimes for a month or a month-and-a-half because of snow. I’ve only seen two snows over 30 inches in the last 40 years,” he said.
Brashear is a farmer and former coal miner in eastern Kentucky. He continues to work a heritage farm that his great grandfather established in 1820. He said the hot weather lasts longer than it used to, and the rain comes more often.
“It takes about five days to get hay good and dry,” Brashear said. “And now in the last two years I haven’t had four days that it didn’t rain.”
He said his dad used to butcher and cure his own hogs over the winter, something you can’t hardly do anymore.
“And today, if you hang meat out in November and December and most of January, the flies blow it. You couldn’t cure it. It’s too warm,” he said.
Brashear expects he’ll be the last in his family line to work his farm. He hopes the small farmers that remain get the help they need to adapt to a changing climate and carry on their traditions.
If these floods do become more frequent, Barton with the University of Kentucky said people may need to reconsider where they live and either move farther from floodplains, build on higher ground or build elevated structures like in coastal areas facing rising sea levels.
“We really need to think about addressing the likelihood of something like this happening again and becoming more frequent, especially as we rebuild,” Barton said.