Eastern Kentucky Floods Devastate Library; Local Author Steps Up To Help

In the violent rainstorms that hit central Appalachia this summer, one of the hardest hit institutions was Kentucky's Letcher County Public Library. Three of its four locations and a bookmobile were severely damaged. Cleanup has been steady but slow, but a GoFundMe fundraiser set up by Kim Michele Richardson, author of The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, has raised more than $30,000 to help the library rebuild and restock.

damaged library space with books falling off shelves and on floor
Flood damage at Fleming Neon Public Library
Photo by Alita Vogel

The violent rainstorms that hit central Appalachia this summer dumped more than 10 inches of rain in eastern Kentucky during July 25–30. Flash flooding destroyed thousands of homes and businesses, washing out more than 100 bridges. At least 43 people died of cleanup- or storm-related injuries, including four children.

Schools and their libraries across the region were severely battered; many were still unable to open when the school year began. Among public libraries, one of the hardest hit was Letcher County Public Library (LCPL). Three of its four locations—the Harry M. Caudill Memorial Library, Fleming Neon Public Library, Blackey Public Library—and a bookmobile were severely damaged. Cleanup has been steady but slow, Director Alita Vogel told LJ. But a GoFundMe fundraiser set up by Kim Michele Richardson, author of The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek—a novel featuring the region’s legendary Pack Horse Librarians—has raised more than $30,000 to help the library rebuild and restock.

 

DAMAGE AND RECOVERY

Vogel made it to the Caudill Library on the afternoon of July 28, afraid that she would find the entire building underwater. Her main concern, she said, was for the library’s extensive genealogy collection, compiled by the Letcher County Historical and Genealogical Society, which was irreplaceable. The water had only breached the subbasement used for storage, destroying holiday decorations, old card catalogs, donated books waiting to be given away, and programming equipment—as well as the elevator, leaving the library’s upper floors inaccessible to those who can’t use the stairs.

The town of Fleming Neon saw extensive damage, Vogel said, and the interior of the library was devastated—a tree battered down the back door, letting water in, which broke through the front windows—although the building remained standing. The damage restoration company Servpro has been working to dry out the interior, and the electrical system has been repaired; now the library needs to secure an architect, as everything but the shell will need to be rebuilt. Only a few books from the collection that had been on a high shelf, and those that were checked out, survived.

Although it suffered far less damage, the Blackey branch will need to replace flooring, drywall, and insulation, as well as furniture, bookshelves, and some books. The bookmobile was destroyed, said Vogel; she recently received board approval to buy a new outreach vehicle, and is hoping for a midsized SUV that can navigate the region’s back roads.

“We were able to open [the Caudill branch] the day after the flood,” said Vogel. “We made coffee with water cooler water, and we got snacks and put them out. We had phone service and internet. We made all of those things available to anybody that needed to come in. I basically threw the rules out the window—if they didn't have shoes to wear, they didn't have to wear shoes.”

The library has added evening hours and is now open Sunday. Even when things return to normal, said Vogel, “I think we're going to continue staying open on Sundays. The argument the whole time was, I don't think people are going to come in. Well, that's been disproven.”

CVS donated a few thousand dollars’ worth of health and beauty supplies: deodorant, shampoo, razors, baby wash, and wet wipes, which the library set out for people to take as needed. Nearby Berea College supplied laptops for branch use and checkout.

Cleanup is steady but slow, said Vogel. The county is short on contractors, as everyone is rebuilding at the same time; some residents are still living in tents and hotel rooms. The local high school, which was saved by its location on a hill, is currently housing grade and middle school classes as well. “It’s going to take years to recover completely,” she added.

 

SUPPORT FROM A LOYAL FAN

empty library interior with man walking through
Repairs in progress at Blackey Public Library
Photo by Brian Lewis

The library has received some federal recovery funds, said Vogel, noting that although FEMA is supposed to cover 75 percent of rebuilding costs and local government 12 percent, “technically we are local government, so we might be putting up 25 percent ourselves.” LCPL also had flood insurance on the Fleming Neon branch. But the most critical support, post-flood, has been Richardson’s GoFundMe.

Richardson is a Kentucky-born native of the state; the protagonist of her award-winning The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek works for the Pack Horse Library Project, a WPA Administration program developed to deliver books to remote regions of the Appalachian Mountains between 1935 and 1943. “Libraries have always been a normalcy for these people and have been a vital safe haven, a refuge,” she told LJ. “Librarians are like Swiss Army knives. They do so much for their communities.”

Richardson became friendly with LCPL staff after doing an author visit at the library several years ago. After hearing news of the floods, she said, “I could only imagine how they felt. The destruction is so wide, and it’s a painful recovery.” She has donated to the library in the past, helping fund improvements such as new carpeting and painting. This degree of need, however, called for a wider effort, so in mid-August Richardson started a GoFundMe campaign, Letcher Co. Public Libraries Damaged By KY Flood.

The response was immediate and enthusiastic. Richardson has a wide platform of fans; The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek was a New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today bestseller, a Dolly Parton Recommended Read, a PBS Books Readers Choice for 2020, and was voted one of the most popular book club books for 2021. The fundraiser, which Richardson publicized on her website and Facebook page, surpassed her goal of $25,000 in its first two weeks. Currently $30,000 has been raised through the GoFundMe page, with another $10,000 sent directly to the library. Along with LCPL’s existing emergency fund, money raised will help with the new bookmobile, said Vogel, and upgrades to collection materials and interior spaces. “We’re planning to use whatever we need to make the libraries better than they were,” she said.

Donated books for LCPL and school libraries wiped out by the floods have been arriving steadily as well, and Letcher County Public School Superintendent Denise Yonts has asked that senders hold off for now, since there is no place to store them. Richardson hopes that in another few months they will be able to accept book donations again. “One thing Letcher County has never done—we don’t ban books,” she said. “Send us your banned books, if you like.”

The Caudill branch remains open while repairs are made to the basement and elevator; Vogel hopes to have the Blackey branch open by the end of the year and Fleming Neon open by August 2023. Readers interested in helping LCPL can contribute to Richardson’s fundraiser, which remains open, or send checks to Letcher County Public Library, 222 Main Street, Whitesburg, KY, 41858.

“It’s going to take time, but it’s going to happen,” said Vogel of the library’s recovery efforts. “We are going to reopen. Yeah, it looks bad right now, but I’m hoping that the Fleming Neon branch will be a beacon of hope for that town.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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