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Biden was in eastern Kentucky, touring damage after floods killed at least 37

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Biden toured flood damage in eastern Kentucky earlier today. It has been more than a week since flash floods cascaded through many mountain communities in the region, killing at least 37 people. More are still missing. Cleanup will take months, and many worry the region will never be the same. The president said Kentucky can count on federal support.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I promise you, we're not leaving. The federal government and all its resources, we're not leaving. As long as it takes, we're going to be here.

CHANG: Ryland Barton is the managing editor for Kentucky Public Radio and joins us now from eastern Kentucky. Welcome.

RYLAND BARTON, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: Hi. OK. So can you tell us more about what President Biden saw today? Where did he go exactly?

BARTON: Yeah. So the president flew into Breathitt County, which is one of the areas that was hardest hit by the flooding. He said from the air he saw creeks and rivers that were covered with flood debris, which is really everywhere out here. There are pieces of homes, clothing, furniture, toys and trash, all of it left in trees and bushes along the riverbanks. He stopped at an elementary school in the town of Lost Creek. It's become a hub for supplies and a place for people to get help after the flood. He praised the recovery effort, including FEMA, which has about 700 people on the ground right now. And he talked to families, one of who's prefab home was all twisted up, another that had been knocked off its foundation.

The president's big message was that the federal government is committed to helping people recover from the flood. At this point, there aren't really any firm estimates about how much that recovery will cost, except that it's going to be massive. He also said disasters like this show the importance of putting politics aside. Eastern Kentucky is a region that used to be heavily democratic but has become really Republican in recent years, especially during the Trump era.

CHANG: God, Ryland, I'm just trying to visualize some of those details you mentioned, like a twisted-up home, one literally washed off its foundation. Can you just talk a little more about what it looks like on the ground right now? You were visiting with people over the weekend, right?

BARTON: Yeah. It's really hard to tell at this point that the flooding was over a week ago because it's still such a big mess. There is mud everywhere. I'm in Jackson right now, which is also in Breathitt County. It's a city that's situated along a river in the mountains. I talked to Ramona Combs, whose house is still wet like so many other homes. And her floor is like a roller coaster because it's so buckled. Whether she moves back into her house depends on how much she gets from FEMA.

RAMONA COMBS: We're going to clean out what we want, the race we're going to trash. And then you just wait for FEMA to see what they're going to do.

BARTON: Like many people in the area, Combs didn't have flood insurance. I've talked to people who do, and they say their outlook isn't much better. It's going to be a long time until people get assistance. And even then, it may not be enough. You know, when the tornadoes ripped through western Kentucky late last year, a very small percentage of people who applied for federal housing aid ended up getting it. Six months after that disaster, there was only a 16% approval rate.

CHANG: Wow, only 16%. Well, given that flooding is not new to the region, I mean, are people there just wanting to not put up with it anymore and want to move somewhere else? What are they saying?

BARTON: I mean, yeah, there definitely are. And that's one of the saddest parts of what's going on right now. Breathitt County got hit by a big flood last year as well. I talked to a family that had just rebuilt their house and this time got hit even harder. Randall Combs says he's either going to move to higher ground or just leave.

RANDALL COMBS: See, I don't plan on moving back in, to be honest with you. I'm going to find me another place to live if we get enough money from the insurance company to do that.

BARTON: Eastern Kentucky has been suffering from the decline of the coal industry. A lot of people have moved off because there are fewer jobs. And a flood like this might just accelerate this whole process of depopulating a really beautiful and culturally vibrant part of the country.

CHANG: That is Ryland Barton with Kentucky Public Radio in eastern Kentucky. Thank you so much, Ryland.

BARTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryland is the state capitol reporter for the Kentucky Public Radio Network, a group of public radio stations including WKU Public Radio. A native of Lexington, Ryland has covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin.