The Hidden Cost of Rebuilding After a Flood

Disaster victims often have small expenses that add up, making it hard to rebuild their lives.

The Hidden Cost of Rebuilding After a Flood

Carolyn Combs was struck by a feeling of déjà vu when rising floodwaters surrounded her house the morning of Saturday, July 29. Floodwaters had flooded the first floor in her family home in Jackson (Kentucky) a year earlier, causing damage to living areas, storage, and bedrooms for her teenage children.

Ms. Combs and her family spent months on the second level while the lower floor was renovated. The project was almost complete when the storms of 2022 began. They moved as much as they could upstairs before evacuating to avoid the losses of last year.

This time, however, the water level reached almost 10 feet, which is equivalent to the second floor.

Combs, 37 said, "Everything was gone." After the first flood, her family spent an estimated $6,000 to $7,000 on furniture and appliances. They had to start from scratch.

When they fled, Ms. Combs carried with her a backpack containing clothes and other small items like phone chargers. After realizing that there was likely to be damage, Ms. Combs and her daughter returned hours later in a neighbor’s kayak with critical medical items for Mr. Combs who is disabled.

Costs quickly added up. The cost of three nights in an hotel room was almost $500. The family had to buy all their meals for about $80 a day because they did not have a place to cook. Ms. Combs recalled being shocked when she discovered that the family had spent $75 just on laundry in the first days following the flood.

Combses purchased feminine hygiene products, such as toothbrushes. The Combses bought litter, food and crates for their pets.

In the aftermath of major disasters such as the Kentucky floods and other large-scale events, insurance companies and government agencies are consulted to determine costs. Smaller expenses, however, are often forgotten and seldom reimbursed despite the fact that they can have a major impact on a family's bank account.

Combs stated, "It is just simple things." Combs said, "I'm working two jobs to pay for groceries, my children, and everyday needs. "It's difficult for us to rebuild."

The flooding in eastern Kentucky caused such severe damage that President Biden declared a major catastrophe for 13 counties. Residents were able to receive assistance from agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Small Business Administration.

The Combses were aware that their home was located in a flood-prone area: in 2009, it was damaged by floodwaters of about three feet before Ms. Combs moved in with her daughter. The household was approved at that time for FEMA assistance. This included a paid year of flood insurance.

They then continued to pay for these payments until they became too expensive. Ms. Combs stated that the monthly cost was more than $500. When they were faced with flooding damage again, the Combses knew they wouldn't receive any assistance from either their insurance or agency. She said that Ms. Combs applied for a Small Business Administration loan, but it was rejected because of her poor credit rating. The family relies on community support and organizations such as the American Red Cross to survive without government assistance. A church group cleaned out the house and threw out the refrigerator that was stocked with spoiled foods. Aspire Appalachia is a nonprofit organization in eastern Kentucky that installed new drywall, and purchased some of the fixtures the Combses would need to replace. These included a toilet and washing machine.

Families and friends also chipped in to cover the cost of the hotel, purchase items on an Amazon wishlist, and pay for the teenagers back-to school needs. The Combses were able to stay for free at a relative’s house while their home was being repaired.

Combs believes that they have been blessed. On a Friday night in March, almost eight months after her flood, Ms. Combs was overwhelmed by the receipts she had to review. The family still pays for electrical and water services even though they don't live in the home that was damaged. The ceiling in the basement is not finished, and they need to install a new heating system.

Ms. Combs estimates that they spent several thousand dollars just to get home. The total cost of the floods in the past is over $10,000.

She plans to replace the missing items in her home before her birthday, April 30. The priceless keepsakes of Ms. Combs’s mother who died from Covid-19 in the same month that the flood occurred 2021 remain lost.

"I have several things that belonged to her that are now gone," said Ms. Combs. "Things such as that are the most difficult things to think about."

A report by the Ohio River Valley Institute & Appalachian Citizens' Law Center found that six out of ten households affected in the floods in 2022 reported an income under $30,000. Most did not have flood coverage. Some, such as the Combses family, found the cost of the insurance prohibitive. Residents in the area claim they were quoted over $1,000 per month.

Some people were not considered living in a flooding zone until the storm. This was the case with Polly Barse Fleming who claimed that her house in Neon had been in the family of her husband for over a century, and she never experienced flooding until last July.

Ms. Barse Fleming (42), bought her first new car four days before heavy rains. The $20,000 deposit for the Toyota Highlander was an important and well-considered expense. It would be a good choice to get her to the middle school, where she teaches, on rural roads. Her family was forced to borrow tens and thousands of dollars in order to cover the costs of the disaster.

The house is now supported by jacks. After an assessment of the damages in person, FEMA sent $40,000 to Ms. Barse. FEMA calculates these numbers based on the reported losses and needs. It explains that it is not meant to make a victim "whole", but rather help with their basic living expenses.

The family of Ms. Barse Fleming used the money to pay for a down-payment on a double wide manufactured home. The choice was made strategically: Her insurance agent explained to her that the policy on the double-wide would cover flooding and save the family money. The family's personal expenses were mounting, even with FEMA funding.

The family also needed extra gas for Ms. Barse's longer commute to work, which she takes to avoid the damaged roads. She lost her garden which provided her family with produce such as tomatoes, squash, and peppers.

Like Ms. Combs', Ms. Barse fleeming also credits others with providing crucial assistance to cover these costs. WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour was a non-profit that donated an upright bass to her daughter, who is a 13-year-old musician.

Barse Fleming stated that "many of us have put our lives back together through the generosity of others." The family couldn't afford to buy new furniture for the house on top of everything else they were doing.

Wallace Caleb Bates is the community outreach coordinator for Aspire Appalachia. The organization that assisted the Combs' family. He says it's not uncommon to have to deal with the day-today costs after a disaster. He spoke of a woman who survived a flood and realized that she had no cookware. It's hard to replace the things you consider everyday.

Scott McReynolds is the executive director of Housing Development Alliance a local nonprofit. He said that not only household items were lost, but also cars, toys, and equipment left in yards. McReynolds' house was untouched but he had to spend $2,500 on repairing his driveway.

After the storm, even those whose homes were not damaged incurred additional costs. For weeks, much of the area was without power and water. Residents are still paying high prices for goods in high demand, such as housing materials. They may also need to travel further to buy these items while local stores are being rebuilt.

"I wonder what wealth was literally washed away in this area -- we are a low-wealth region in the first instance," said Mr. McReynolds.

Ms. Combs stated that some people told her they would quit if she were in her situation, but that was not something that she had given much thought. In addition to her jobs, her friends and family are also here.

Then there are financial considerations. The Combses, despite living in a flooding zone, own their land. It was handed down from Mr. Combs’s family. They would need to buy land, pay rent, or get a mortgage if they moved. And they'd still have to cover the cost of new furniture, clothes, and other household items.

"You want to go home?" said Ms. Combs. Everyone wants to return home. "But I don't think I could do it again."