The people of Eastern Kentucky don’t need your pity, opinions, or taunts.
They need your help.
I hesitate to write “They need your help.”
The word “help” has connotations that I don’t find appropriate when writing about the needs of people in Eastern Kentucky.
Help these days has taken on a more desperate meaning. This is a last resort; advocacy. It’s usually used when someone wants to make something easier for someone else – or worse – to do it for them.
The people of Eastern Kentucky don’t need our “help”. They need help, so I use it here to describe joining efforts with someone else.
We don’t necessarily need to “help” Eastern Kentucky – they are resilient people.
They must have been for hundreds of years.
The best we can do now is to help them with the work they are already undertaking.
When the waters began to rise, they sprang into action to help their people. They did not wait and could not wait for outside help. Living in a remote region, mountain people already know that outside “help” takes time, if at all.
Communities used to being forgotten have long adapted ways to survive without the “help” of others. Eastern Kentucky is strong and there’s a reason they’ve persisted for generations.
It is a culture of survival. A culture of picking up the pieces and moving on. A culture in which adversity follows you from the cradle to the grave. A culture that doesn’t care what other people think or believe about them, because Eastern Kentucky people are first and foremost Eastern Kentucky people. Damn the rest of us, for how could we ever truly understand?
This is why the current conversation around this region of Appalachia is so concerning.
The Kentuckians are dead. Hundreds are missing. Families have lost everything they have worked for all their lives. Parts of our Commonwealth’s history are lost.
Yet many have chosen to take this time to bring politics and old taunts into the fray.
Many National Democrats have begun branding the eastern half of the state as a stronghold of armed, racist, climate change denier Republicans — the people some believe are solely responsible for electing divisive figures like Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul. It is a region considered a lost cause by most liberal state, regional and national leaders.
It is a mistake. Ignoring parts of the country you don’t understand only defeats the “good” and “change” Democrats say they want to bring to Appalachians. Without help, those in the region working for real change find themselves without the additional resources needed to make progress.
Moreover, it is implausible to think that Mother Nature checked voter registration cards and annual income before choosing to decimate homes and carry children and loved ones into the floodwaters. Natural disasters affect both poor and rich – Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, wildfires tore through California, and I don’t think anyone would describe these places, on the whole, as poor.
A constant refrain on social media over the past week is “Why don’t they leave?” The simple answer is that many have already abandoned their bawls and homesteads in Eastern Kentucky. The population of this region has declined rapidly over the years as poverty, the opioid crisis and lack of resources have become too much of a burden to bear. Without taxpayers, local governments simply cannot meet rising infrastructure costs and zoning needs to mitigate disasters like this flood.
The more complicated answer is that eastern Kentucky is rural for a reason. There is no interstate or similar road infrastructure that can easily transport goods and people – and no real effort to make it a possibility. Mobility is often not an option for those who live in the hills of eastern Kentucky. This is exactly why relief efforts are also under strain at the moment, as mudslides and flooding have significantly affected the already difficult and narrow roads.
Then there are the family and cultural ties that keep some from packing up and saying goodbye to the scenic hills.
When “help” cannot reach you or ignores you; when strangers arrive and take advantage of you and your resources; when the world matters to you – you turn inward.
The people of Eastern Kentucky are very united for a very good reason. The last time people came to wield money in the area with promises of good work and a prosperous life; it ended in disaster. The coal industry not only stripped the earth of its resources; he also left behind the shells of his people. Industry has invested very little in the area – providing only the bare necessities to house, feed and rudimentarily educate its workforce. When the golden age of coal was over, it left behind an isolated population that depended on only one thing: themselves.
Then, when times inevitably got tough, politicians rushed to the region with promises of a better life in exchange for the only currency left to former mining families: their vote. This promised better life turned out to be only a guarantee of survival. “We will feed you, house you and support you,” the politicians said. “But, only until your usage dries up.” Once again, the mountaineers had to rely only on each other and on the meager “help” of foreigners.
They continue to survive, but never have the opportunity to prosper economically.
Eastern Kentucky has a history of exploitation and disregard that cannot be underestimated.
The people of this region have already been described to me as “independent as pigs on ice”. On the surface this could be construed as mocking, but pigs are widely considered intelligent creatures. Therefore, an intelligent creature that ended up on the ice, was trapped in a sense, by its environment and circumstances beyond its control. Frankly, the people of Eastern Kentucky are smart and fiercely independent, but the circumstances of the current situation prohibit much forward momentum.
You see, eastern Kentucky’s greatest resource is its people.
It is a hardworking, diligent, resourceful, independent, fearless and loyal people. We know this by the fact that it was this population that answered the coal industry’s call for workers willing to do what others could not or would not do. The miners of this region went to work every day in the dark and humid depths of the earth and broke their backs so that they could put food on the table. They came out of the depths with coal dust in their lungs.
And they fought.
The people of Eastern Kentucky have not stood idly by throughout its history as coal industry executives reaped profits on their backs. Appalachia’s history is filled with many stories of miner protests for better working conditions, better pay, and the ability to bargain collectively through a union. Miners worked across communities and racial divides collectively for the good of the community. Some protests have ended in almost warlike battles for control. While the odds were almost always against the miners and their families, they always fought for what they believed in. These protests continue to this day as Kentucky miners in 2020 blocked coal trains on the tracks to protest their due.
The best thing we can do for our neighbors in eastern Kentucky is to pay attention and ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. Blaming people for their voting history and historical lack of resources is not only callous; it’s just plain ignorant.
Residents of Eastern Kentucky have another chance to change their history as rebuilding efforts begin. Use help and national attention to make things better. Mountaineers can weather this storm – we need to do our part to make sure that when the sun shines again on their former home in Kentucky, it will be better than before. No region or people deserve to be oppressed.
We need to invest in these people – they are worth it. It’s already been done by an industry that didn’t care about creating something lasting for future generations. The people of Eastern Kentucky know better now and I’m sure they can lead the way with ideas to rebuild the area. It’s something they’ve been thinking about and working on for a long time. It is time for us to help them achieve this goal.
Ultimately, the Commonwealth will be stronger as a whole, and Kentuckians can live up to the words inscribed on our state flag: “United we stand, divided we fall.”
We can no longer forget Eastern Kentucky. We can’t count them when they’re still so willing to fight.
One thing is certain.
Come rain or shine, the people of Eastern Kentucky will persevere. With or without us.
They don’t know any other way.