WHITESBURG, Ky. —
The raging floodwaters that left dozens dead or missing in eastern Kentucky also swept away some of the region’s irreplaceable history.
Appalshop, a cultural center known for chronicling Appalachian life for the rest of the world, is cleaning up and assessing its losses, like much of the stricken mountain region around it.
Record flooding on the North Fork of the Kentucky River inundated downtown Whitesburg in southeastern Kentucky, causing extensive damage last week at the renowned repository of Appalachian history and culture. Some of its losses are likely permanent, after floodwaters soaked or swept away some of Appalshop’s treasures, including archives documenting the region’s rich, and sometimes painful, past.
“It’s gut-wrenching to see our beloved building overcome by floodwaters,” said Alex Gibson, Appalshop’s executive director. “We will recover, but right now we are certainly mourning what’s been lost.”
Launched more than a half-century ago in part as a training ground for aspiring filmmakers, Appalshop has evolved into a multifaceted enterprise with a mission to uplift the region. Besides its film institute, it features a radio station, theater, art gallery, record label and community development program.
But now, Appalshop’s focus has turned inward. The center known for training storytellers finds itself part of one of the region’s biggest stories as floodwaters covered large swaths of the mountainous region, leading to deaths and widespread destruction.
Appalshop is insured and its team is still working to assess the full scope of what’s been lost and what can be salvaged, said its communications director, Meredith Scalos.
“It will probably be a week before we know the totality of the damage,” she said. “We are going to be rebuilding for years, not days or weeks.”
The first floor of its main building was swamped by the fast-rising water. When cleanup crews went in, they found a thick coating of mud. The radio station and theater suffered major damage, Scalos said. The archives also sustained damage. The upper two floors were unscathed. Another Appalshop building also sustained extensive damage.
At the outset, the highest priority has been to clean up and assess the archives, which included tens of thousands of items documenting cross-sections of Appalachian life over the decades, Scalos said.
Scalos said she feared the loss of one-of-a-kind items that tell the region’s story.
Archival materials include film, photos, oral histories, musical performances, magazines and much more. The pieces delved into such topics as coal mining, labor strife, politics, religion, folk art and population trends. Some of the material was swept into the streets of Whitesburg.
Appalshop officials are reaching out to federal emergency officials to determine the availability of assistance, Scalos said. Appalshop receives funding from many sources, including large foundations and individuals. Its enterprises have grown through the years, but its mission has remained constant: to showcase Appalachian traditions and promote the creativity of its residents.
For decades, it has been at the forefront of efforts to reshape the region’s image by highlighting the richness of its history and culture and giving Appalachians a voice to share their stories, said Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, which has an office in Whitesburg.
“Over time, Appalshop’s films, plays and recordings went a long way to expose the hollowness of the hillbilly stereotypes,” said Davis, who formerly worked at Appalshop.
Recalling his time at Appalshop, he said: “Our attitude was, ‘We may be hillbillies, but you’re no better than us.’ And that came through in our work.”
The flood, meanwhile, has halted the center’s busy schedule. Its Summer Documentary Institute film screening, meant to showcase the works of its interns, was postponed indefinitely, Scalos said.
“That event is the culmination of the youth interns’ summer of work where they show their documentaries to friends, family and the community before the films are submitted to film festivals,” Scalos said. “That one is particularly gutting.”
Appalshop had started planning its fall film-screening schedule, but that, too, will be postponed.
Despite the present crisis, Appalshop hasn’t lost sight of its mission. Recognizing the historic nature of what happened over the last few days, the center is trying to chronicle the flooding for future generations.
“We are documenting as much as we can,” Scalos said. “Of course, some of our equipment was lost and is not recoverable. In the day and age of the smartphone, it’s a lot easier, of course. We’ll be looking at ways to pull the stories together, for sure.”