The raging floods that left dozens dead or missing in eastern Kentucky also swept away part 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 affected mountainous region around it.
Record flooding on the North Fork of the Kentucky River inundated downtown Whitesburg in southeastern Kentucky last week, causing extensive damage to the famous repository of Appalachian history and culture. Some of its losses are likely permanent, after flood waters soaked or swept away some of Appalshop’s treasures, including archives documenting the region’s rich and sometimes painful past.
“It is heartbreaking to see our beloved building inundated by floodwaters,” said Appalshop Executive Director Alex Gibson. “We will recover, but right now we are certainly mourning what has been lost.”
Founded in part as a training school for aspiring filmmakers more than half a century ago, Appalshop has grown into a multi-faceted company with a mission to empower the region. In addition to its film institute, it has 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, is part of one of the region’s biggest histories – when flood waters covered large parts of the mountainous region, causing deaths and widespread destruction.
Appalshop is insured and its team is still working to assess the full scope of what was lost and what can be salvaged, said communications director Meredith Scalos.
“It will probably be a week before we know the totality of the damage,” she said. “We will rebuild for years, not days or weeks.”
The first floor of the main building was flooded by the rapidly rising water. When the cleaners went inside, they found a thick layer of mud. The radio station and theater were badly damaged, Scalos said. The archives were also damaged. The top two floors remained intact. Another Appalshop building was also badly damaged.
Initially, the top priority was to clean up and evaluate the archives, which contained tens of thousands of items documenting cross-sections of life in Appalachia over the decades, Scalos said.
Scalos said she fears the loss of unique items that tell the history of the region.
Archival materials include films, photos, oral histories, musical performances, magazines and more. The plays dealt with topics such as coal mining, labor disputes, politics, religion, folk art and population development. Some of the material was swept into the streets of Whitesburg.
Appalshop officials are reaching out to federal emergency responders to determine the availability of help, Scalos said. Appalshop receives funding from many sources, including large foundations and individuals. Its businesses have grown over the years, but its mission has remained constant – to showcase Appalachian traditions and encourage 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 Appalachia 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 have helped expose the hollowness of hillbilly stereotypes,” said Davis, a former Appalshop employee.
Recalling his time at Appalshop, he said, “Our attitude was, ‘We may be hillbilly, but you’re no better than us.’ And that has shown in our work.”
The flooding, meanwhile, disrupted the center’s busy schedule. The Summer Documentary Institute’s film screening, which was set to show the work of its interns, has been postponed indefinitely, Scalos said.
“This event is the culmination of the youth interns’ summer of work, showing their documentaries to friends, family and the community before the films are submitted to film festivals,” Scalos said. “That’s particularly corrosive.”
Appalshop had begun planning its fall film screening schedule, but that too is being postponed.
Even when dealing with its own crisis, Appalshop has not lost sight of its mission. Recognizing the historical nature of what has happened over the past few days, the center is attempting to record the flooding for future generations.
“We document as much as we can,” Scalos said. “Of course, some of our equipment has been lost and cannot be recovered. In the age of smartphones, this is of course much easier. We’ll be sure to look for ways to bring the stories together.”
Snow reported from Phoenix.