perspective | Climate change is making life in the Appalachian Mountains more difficult. Why do we stay?


Pictured, 98-year-old Mae Amberge sits on top of her bed as flood waters rise from each side, four feet deep in her home in Letcher County, Kentucky. Her legs are immersed in the cold, muddy water as she watches the flood flow around her, destroying everything she owns. There is a strange calm about her posture – her arms elegantly wrapped around her knees, strength in her shoulders even in this moment of utter defeat – but her face is shaped by worry and sadness. Her granddaughter posted the photo in the hope that someone who had seen her would save Mae and two of her other relatives.

Not far, near the small town of Whitesburg, 17-year-old Chloe Adams woke up to her family’s submerged home. She knew that if she did not run away, she would drown. Chloe just grabbed her dog, Sandy, and swam. The teen was hoping to get to her uncle’s house on higher ground, where the rest of her family were sheltering, but the water was so deep and rough, so she and Sandy waited for five hours on the narrow roof of the shed that was almost. Fully submerged before being rescued in a kayak. In a photo the crowd will eventually see, she looks at the camera exhaustedly, but her resolve remains intact. Sandy rests securely on Chloe’s aching legs.

As someone from eastern Kentucky whose family lost almost everything to a sudden flood as a child, I was brought back in time to that cold day when my mother and I ran out of our trailer home as it was flooded with raging waters. My family was safe this time, but the complex place I like was not; The Appalachians were hit again. The Hindman School of Settlement, a center for literary arts, food ways, and dyslexia programs where I often teach, watched its offices, archives, and many classrooms devastated by a storm that came so quickly that there was no time to salvage anything. Participants in a writing workshop there had to flee their dormitories in the middle of the night in search of higher, more stable ground, fearful of rising waters and mudslides. Many Appalachian people have had this experience. But it now happens more often. We are all victims of climate change.

As the flood waters rose, a panicked granddaughter shared a photo and a distress

Americans’ reactions to the images and stories of the devastating floods of eastern Kentucky in the early morning hours of July 28 tended to split into two camps. One group expressed sympathy and joined the relief effort by donating its money or services. The second fired ridiculous tweets (one wrote “Let’s swim”), which led to the denials of people they considered responsible for voting in disabled senators Mitch McConnell, who had prevented climate change action and mining regulations for decades, and Rand Paul, who consistently criticized and voted against Relief bills to help others, including hurricane victims. Another commented, “These guys got what they voted for.”

Many in the area have lost their homes, their children and their lives. But we should also care because science shows that one day soon the same thing may happen to many of us. We can be better people by imagining ourselves in the most desperate situations of others.

We are already seeing the climate crisis reshaping the lives of Americans. According to the US government, heavy rain events intensified in most parts of the country; The ability of a warmer atmosphere to hold more moisture has led to an increase in precipitation. In eastern Kentucky late last month, nine inches of rain fell in 12 hours. A few days ago, St. Louis experienced record heavy rain. Meanwhile, our two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead in Nevada and Lake Powell in Utah, both on the Arizona border, are heading toward the dead-pool state—the point where the water level is too low to flow downstream from the dam. Massive wildfires devour parts of California, Idaho, Montana and Hawaii. Scientists agree more than ever that we are experiencing extreme weather caused by climate change.

The people most affected in general will be those who live in the poorest regions of the world, which are also places that tend to be the richest in natural resources. The Democratic Republic of the Congo has abundant minerals such as diamonds, gold, and copper, yet its poverty rate is among the highest in the world. Studies show that oil-rich regions such as Iraq and Syria often have less democracy. The corporations that control these lands have to keep the people poor and under their thumb so that they can drain the resources with minimal interference. The poorer a person is, the less power he or she has to respond or bring about legislative change.

This has always been the case in Appalachia, where we are faced with huge corporations, government and also centuries-old stereotypes born at least in part to more easily grab our natural resources.

Often when I’m on book tours, people ask me why I chose to live in Kentucky. They find it hard to understand why anyone would want to live in a place that movies, TV shows, and other media have taught them is a cesspool inhabited only by jaw-dropping yokels. This question reveals class and ignorance of what it means to be poor or working, or to have loyalty. Eastern Kentuckians are staying for the same reasons that drove people home after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy or California Hell.

I have deep pride in being from the Appalachian region despite being completely frustrated with the way the region votes. You can love a place for your bones and still not fully understand it. We are people who have fought for workers’ rights and the environment for decades. I am the grandson of a coal miner who lost his leg in the mines and years later also gave his breath when he died of black lung, like many others. We have fed this nation with timber, coal, gas, soldiers, music, literature, and more than two centuries ago. Some of us stay here because we have no other choice; My family didn’t live in the flood plain because we wanted to but because we were poor.

I had to study for a while to see why My Ambergé seemed so familiar to me. I realized it was because I saw the same look on my mother’s face when we escaped the flood all those years ago. She is the face of many who came before her and those who will come after her, among all the people who had to fight to survive. I am haunted by the exhaustion and determination in Chloe Adams’ eyes. It is the eyes of many children from all over the world who are helpless against the greed of others.

They are my people not only because they are Appalachians like me, but because they are human. They are familiar faces because all of them, caught in the clutches of entities that have more rights than we as individuals, including companies that often get favors from politicians like McConnell and Paul, neither of which has emerged in the devastated place they are supposed to represent. (McConnell said he plans to visit the area, and Paul said at a press conference in Louisville that he would “try to get out there as quickly as possible.”) They are ourselves, our children and our grandchildren in the near future; The climate crisis is happening now.

Adams once said, “My heart goes out to all the others who have lost and suffered more than I did in this appalling devastation.” Despite being nearly 100 years old, the Amburgey swam outside of that house. The flowing water swept her to a nearby bridge, but then she reached the lifeguards’ boat.

Tonight, it rained east of Kentucky again.

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