Parlor Room in Whitesburg is an old tattoo shop, music venue, and art gallery. The walls are covered in artwork, while the floor is unadorned, with mud covering the mud.
John Falter oversees rows of sketchbooks, with the tattoo artists’ drawings, drying beneath fans.
“The water pressure pushed the doors wide open,” Falter said of the storm that goaded the North Fork of the Kentucky River out of its banks and into the historic mountain city.
“As far as loss of stuff, it could’ve been so much worse.”
Whitesburg is known for its mud cakes. It’s on everything: shoes, cars, furniture piled outside of stores and houses. Dust rises to the surface of the air on sunny days, making it feel deserted. It smells like gasoline and chemicals.
Whitesburg Fire Chief Perry Fowler said city workers can’t work hard or fast enough to get mud off the streets. There’s not enough water in the city tanks, and they’re trying to conserve it.
“We need the water especially to spray mud out that sort of thing,” Fowler said. “So we’re going to have a tough time keeping the tanks full. But we’ve got to get the mud out just for health reasons.”
The city’s losing water to pipe leaks, too, which officials are trying to fix. And when water does come out of the faucet, it’s still not considered safe to drink.
“The boil water advisory is still in effect, and it will be quite some time before that’s released,” Fowler said.
Flooding debris downtown Whitesburg
Then of course, there’s Appalshop, this reporter’s place of work. Appalshop was established in 1969 as an independent film studio. Since then, it has been a well-known institution in the local community. Nestled right next to the river, people have made documentaries, recorded music, written poetry and celebrated Appalachia in the company’s beloved headquarters.
Appalshop runs WMMT 88.7 FM Radio Station, which broadcasts voice and music from the mountains to the rest of the world since 1985.
However, microphones and computers are now piled up in front of the window covered in mud. The bottom floor of the building is unusable right now, said Meredith Scalos, Appalshop’s communications director.
“We are highly focused on the early phase of recovery right now, our highest priority being archival recovery,” Scalos said.
Appalshop’s legendary archives are full of film, photos, documents, art and other treasures that were severely damaged by the flood. They are saving what they can. It is tedious, but it can also be backbreaking. In the hopes of salvaging at least some of their film, employees must gently wash off the mud from the spools.
“It will take weeks, months, years to recover. And community is all we’ve got,” Scalos said.
Appalshop employees volunteer at soup kitchens and local shops in between their cleaning and drying shifts.
Whitesburg’s people are tired.
A trail of footprints takes you to the Harry M. Caudill Library’s computers and coffee pot, as well as to the front desk. The head librarian Alita Vogel welcomes everyone, including the muddy ones, to come sit with them for a while. Sometimes, she even gives them a hug.
“We’re open today in Whitesburg and yesterday offering coffee and a place to just hang out, charge your phone,” Vogel said.
The Whitesburg library branch came out unscathed, but Vogel said libraries in smaller towns haven’t fared so well.
“I don’t know how long it’s going to be before [the libraries in] Neon and Blackey can open back up but I’ll probably put on some boots and some grungy clothes and help clear out as much as I can. And then we’ll just take it from there one step at a time,” Vogel said.
Outside, the mud clings to mail carrier Jody Holbrook’s shoes as he makes his way through town. Everyone knows him well from the usual route down Main Street.
“We’ve got three carriers, but the other two carriers, one of them can’t get can’t get here,” Holbrook said. “And the other one, from what I understand, he lost everything he had. Nobody’s even heard from him.”
Holbrook has a great deal of knowledge about the people of this city. Holbrook visits all of them: the Parlor Room and the Library, Appalshop, and the Apartments. However, the Post Office was also affected.
“There’s no way to describe what all’s piled up in there,” Holbrook said. “And now we just can’t deliver. I mean a lot of my addresses, I pull up and their houses are gone.”
Holbrook blinks back to tears and turns his head.
“I’m sorry about that. We’ll make it, I reckon,” Holbrook said.
The Letcher County Recreation Center is home to a Federal Emergency Management Agency mobile unit. It also has four official locations in Perry and Breathitt.
Assistance will be soon available for Floyd and Pike counties.