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‘I just want a home to go back to’: Months after a historic flood, relief remains elusive for some in Kentucky

Months after a historic flash flood swept through eastern Kentucky, wiping away neighborhoods and leaving dozens dead, some survivors say they are still struggling to get the federal assistance necessary to begin the painstaking process of rebuilding their homes and piecing their lives back together.

Amanda Kilburn is staying with friends as she waits for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to approve her application. Donavon Conn and his family, who have received two denials, are in a camper while FEMA’s appeals process runs its course. Meanwhile, Kendra Tolliver and Betty Sloane said the disaster relief they received is hardly enough to rebuild the homes they lost.

While FEMA said it has approved most of the applications it has received for assistance, that is little consolation for these survivors who say they are losing hope and running out of time.

“We’re down to the last little bit that we got and it’s not looking good. I don’t know what to do,” Conn, 31, told NBC News. “I’m lost in the dark, and I just need help.”

A waiting game

Navigating FEMA’s application process while dealing with the stress of losing everything in the July flood has been almost impossible for Conn. The family’s home in Shelby Gap, their vehicles and a trailer were swept into “a big pile in a tree,” he said.

They spent the first few months after the flood living in a shelter set up in a state park. Earlier this month, they moved into a camper after they were told the park was closing its shelter.

Conn said the only assistance his family has received is $5,500 — a grant from Gov. Andy Beshear’s office, combined with a payment from FEMA to replace lost personal property. After months of pinching off of it, the money is running out, he said.

The family is supposed to get a separate payment from FEMA to cover the cost of rebuilding their home, but Conn said they were denied due to an issue with documents showing proof of ownership. He said he resubmitted the papers only to receive a second denial because he did not include a handwritten appeal letter. 

“Everything they ask for, we give them, and then they ask for something else. And this time it was because we didn’t write an appeal letter with our submission, which I didn’t know we had to do,” he said. “Now we have to re-appeal on that.” 

Donavon Conn and his family.Donavon Conn

Conn added: “I’ve been stressing. My heart’s racing every day.”

Kilburn, 35, of Jackson, is in a similar situation. She said she has not received a dime from FEMA.

“It’s been a struggle. I have not received any help from them yet,” she said. “It’s been really frustrating.”

Kilburn said she immediately submitted an application but it is still pending. She has been living with family and friends while she waits to hear back from the agency. 

“I mean, I try not to get upset because I know they’re probably overworked and overwhelmed, but it does get disheartening sometimes,” she said.

Reducing the red tape

In the weeks and months after the flood, FEMA received more than 16,700 applications for disaster assistance. 

To receive aid, applicants must provide proof of insurance, ownership, identity, occupancy and that the damaged home is their primary residence. The property owner also needs to arrange an inspection through their insurance company. 

Something as simple as a missed inspection or not returning FEMA’s phone calls could lead to an application being deemed ineligible, the agency said in a news release last month. At the time, those two reasons alone resulted in more than 2,000 applicants being deemed ineligible.

FEMA said this month that it “understands that our policies have historically presented unintentional barriers for underserved communities seeking to access our programs.” However, a policy change in August 2021 that expanded acceptable forms of documentation to prove homeownership and occupancy has “reduced red tape and unnecessary obstacles as we help more survivors jumpstart their recovery,” the agency said in another release.

The result? More than 60% of Kentucky flood victims who applied for assistance have been approved, it said. Between 2018 and 2021, before the change took place, that number was closer to 50% for victims of other disasters.

To assist with the process of getting aid, FEMA said its specialists have contacted Kentucky flood survivors directly, requesting any missing information and scheduling inspections. Because of this, 2,097 applicants were approved.

To date, FEMA has given more than $89.4 million in assistance to flood victims.

‘We lost pretty much everything’

While Conn and Kilburn continue to wait for federal assistance, others such as Tolliver and Sloane said the money they received is not enough to cover the damage to their homes.

Tolliver’s home in Whitesburg was destroyed after a foot of water crashed through the front door on the night of the flood. She has been living in a camper with her husband and two young daughters.

“We lost pretty much everything. FEMA gave us $10,000 and that’s not going to fix an entire house,” she said.

So Tolliver’s husband, a heavy equipment mechanic, taught himself carpentry so he can rebuild as much of their house as he can. The family hopes it will be habitable by Christmas.

Sloane, 83, has been staying with friends and family while she tries to figure out her next step. Her home in Bypro was demolished when the rushing water ripped the back off.

“It’s been bad,” she said. “I lived in that house for 22 years. I just want a home to go back to.”

FEMA did not address individual cases but said it “remains focused on helping those who have been affected by this disaster, which is why we still have hundreds of FEMA personnel on the ground in Kentucky to help survivors and their communities jump-start their recovery.”

In addition to FEMA, the American Red Cross is doing its part to help families impacted by the flood by assisting with shelter and clothing for victims. Beshear’s office also sent $500 grants to residents who qualified for FEMA assistance. The checks were a part of more than $12.2 million donated to the Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief Fund.

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