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Towns work to reconnect water, sewer after Eastern KY floods

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Flooding in Eastern Kentucky

“Catastrophic” flash flooding hit parts of Eastern Kentucky July 28, 2022.

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Water and sewer crews from across Kentucky are headed to Eastern Kentucky to help counties and cities restore busted and broken water systems a week after deadly floods knocked out water service to thousands.

Approximately 13,590 customers are still without water, said Gov. Andy Beshear during a Thursday press conference at the Capitol. That’s down from 18,000 customers on Wednesday.

“The water systems are heavily damaged. Some are wiped out,” Beshear said Wednesday. “It’s going to take significant time and significant dollars to restore what was damaged.”

As the difficult work of bringing water back online continues, many towns, counties and local utilities worry about how they will pay for the needed fixes that could cost millions.

Fourteen waste treatment systems are under limited operations due to power outages and storm damage, Beshear said on Thursday. Three wastewater treatment systems are not operational, including Hazard’s treatment system. Two wastewater systems are on bypass, meaning at some point the wastewater treatment system shut down or was not able to process storm water. Thirteen wastewater treatment systems are experiencing discharges, Beshear said.

Multiple water systems are also under boil water advisories.

Beshear cautioned that it could take months to restore some systems that have seen significant damage.

‘You can’t do anything’

Running water is critical for rebuilding efforts.

Bert Baker lives in Perry County. His house was not damaged in the flood, but he has had no water for several days.

There is a storage tank near his home. He had water for a few days after the flood, but then it cut off. He assumes the storage tank near his home ran dry.

Without water, people can’t wash clothes or clean their houses.

“It’s awful,” Baker said. “You can’t do anything.”

Billy Smith, 81, lives in Dwarf. His house is slightly elevated so water did n’t get in, but it did flood his garage about two feet deep, damaging a wheelchair and other items and leaving a coating of mud. A neighbor offered him a power washer to clean it out, but he can’t use it without water. I also can’t shower.

“Bad right now. I could use one,” he said.

The lack of water has stymied clean up efforts.

“It’s hindering clean up ,” said JD Chaney, executive director and CEO of the Kentucky League of Cities, which is helping coordinate relief efforts for cities, including getting crews from other local governments to help restore downed water systems. “It’s also a public health concern.”

The League of Cities has also helped coordinate getting Whitesburg police vehicles from other cities after much of the city’s cruisers were lost in the floods. Berea police are also coming to parts of Eastern Kentucky to help with traffic and patrol to keep looters at bay, Chaney said.

Kentucky Rural Water Association has seven staff on the ground in Eastern Kentucky helping devastated local utilities with evaluation and restoration efforts, said Scott Young, executive director of the association.

In addition, the association is helping coordinate logistics of getting volunteers from other local water districts to hard-hit areas to repair what can be repaired and also to help with assessments. Many crews are already there and others will soon join the restoration efforts, he said.

“There are a lot of systems that are coming back online, sometimes in a limited capacity,” Young said.

‘just washed out’

As of 8 am Wednesday, approximately 42% of Breathitt County’s approximately 2,000 customers had water restored. That was up from 30% on Tuesday.

But parts of that water system are no longer there. “Pipes have just been washed out,” said Estill McIntosh, the superintendent of the Breathitt County Water District.

McIntosh said crews from other parts of the state were expected soon to help with water restoration efforts in areas where there was infrastructure that could be fixed.

“The northern part of the county was not hit as bad as the southern part of the county,” McIntosh said.

It could take months and millions of dollars to restore water to the entire system, he said.

That’s millions of dollars that Breathitt County doesn’t have, he said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will likely reimburse cities and counties for those costs but Breathitt and other counties don’t have the money now to make those fixes.

McIntosh said the state could use federal Clean Water Act money or funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to give to cities and counties for water and other repairs. The local governments could then give the money back to the state once FEMA reimburses the local governments.

Gov. Andy Beshear said Wednesday he will likely call a special legislative session to pass a flood relief package.

Parts of Perry County and Hazard are still without water, officials there said.

The northern part of Perry County was still without water on Wednesday, said Jerry Stacy, emergency management director of Perry County.

“The water lines in the hardest hit areas are just like the roads, the flooding was so massive it destroyed a lot of infrastructure and so forth,” Stacy said.

“We have got people that are working around the clock on that and we have got contractors and so forth getting involved… and working around the clock to get that done,” he said.

Limited water and equipment

Hindman Mayor Tracy Neice worked a lot of Wednesday trying to repair what water lines he could in the Knott County town of about 700 people. Roughly half of Hindman’s water comes from Southern Water and Sewer District in McDowell and the other half comes from Knott County Water and Sewer District.

“A very small percentage has water back on,” Neice said. “We are hoping it will be days. We are working diligently on it.”

What little equipment the city had — a truck, backhoe, an excavator, mowers, weed trimmers and tools needed to repair water pipes — were washed out. Neice hopes other cities may have surplus tools it can send to Hindman. He neice’s own home, as well as several of his family member’s homes, were flooded.

Hindman has three city employees and Neice. Neice hasn’t had time to return to his flooded home to determine what can be salvaged as he has spent most of the past seven days fixing what can be fixed with limited tools.

Neice spent a week in December helping with debris removal in Bremen after deadly tornadoes tore through Western Kentucky. He has received a lot of help and phone calls from friends he made during that week.

“Western Kentucky is pouring a lot of love into this town,” Neice said.

Still, more help is needed, he said.

The state will need to step up to help local governments, schools and utilities pay for the cost of clean up and repair, Neice said.

“We have a very small tax base,” Neice said. “We don’t have millions. We don’t have the liberty of paying up front and having FEMA pay us back.”

Hindman, who has a budget of a little more than $500,000, only receives $8,000 a year in state road aid money. “That’s not enough to blacktop the parking lot of city hall.”

Rep. Angie Hatton, D-Whitesburg, estimated that it would take at least $6 million to get water back to much of Letcher County. A majority of the county, with some exceptions in and around Whitesburg, is without water, she said Wednesday.

City of Hazard Utilities was also still struggling to bring homes and businesses back online this week due to the amount of damage to the system that serves an area that includes 6,500 customers, according to its website.

“Crews are working in small sections where the least amount of damage occurred from the flooding. These sections will be the first restored,” according to a post on City of Hazard Utilities Facebook page. “There are several factors that go into getting everyone restored. This will be a long process and a lot of work. We have catastrophic damage that will need to be fixed in sections before restoration can occur.”

Hazard officials could not be reached for comment.

But some on the utilities Facebook page were becoming anxious after a week without running water.

“We are patient but it’s getting to us all especially us elderly,” wrote one woman.

This story was originally published August 4, 2022 12:06 PM.

Beth Musgrave has covered government and politics for the Herald-Leader for more than a decade. A graduate of Northwestern University, she has worked as a reporter in Kentucky, Indiana, Mississippi, Illinois and Washington DC

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