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East Kentucky's cultural cornerstone is trying to salvage its archives after floods

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's been about a month since flood waters inundated eastern Kentucky, killing dozens of people and destroying many homes and businesses. The floods also took a toll on Appalachian arts and heritage pieces, like those housed in the archive of Appalshop, an arts and media center in Whitesburg, Ky.

ALEX GIBSON: The archive sat, you know, about 15 feet or so below the river. And we were thinking, oh, gosh, well, good thing we moved things off the bottom shelves and good thing we put the drains in. And then it raised up higher, and then we're like, oh, well, it's definitely in the archive.

SHAPIRO: Alex Gibson is Appalshop's executive director. He says the water just kept climbing.

GIBSON: Then at some point, it was over our WMMT call sign of our radio station. And I remember walking by that sign so many times looking up at it. I'm six feet tall, and it was - the water was above it. So that was a stunning and jarring experience for sure.

SHAPIRO: Appalshop's collection spans decades. It includes family relics that help tell the story of Appalachia.

GIBSON: We have furniture made from Chester Cornett, a master chair maker, to quilts donated to us by Black coal miners whose families go back generations. But, you know, our greatest concern are the media production archives. You know, they have thousands of hours of irreplaceable documentation of the region and audio recordings, you know, moving images of people and places.

SHAPIRO: Audio recordings by artists like the West Virginia gospel singer Ethel Caffie-Austin...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETIMES I FEEL LIKE A MOTHERLESS CHILD")

ETHEL CAFFIE-AUSTIN: (Singing) Sometimes I feel like a motherless child. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.

SHAPIRO: ...Or banjo player Morgan Sexton.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MORGAN SEXTON: (Playing banjo, singing, inaudible).

GIBSON: We have the nation's largest repository of Central Appalachian history and culture. You know, it was - the archive was the cultural cornerstone of the region.

SHAPIRO: As archivists, as historians, you know that flooding has always been an issue in this part of the state, in this part of the country. What made this flood different?

GIBSON: There were a few factors at play here. Obviously, the water level was historic. We were always prepared for flooding and the possibility of flooding living next to a river. And we took every rational, reasonable precaution. But we didn't expect 20 feet. You know, it's 26 feet, some places, of water. It was historic and an incredible amount of devastation. I think there's another factor, too, which is, of course, the logging, the mining that's happened in the area, the environmental devastation. You know, hillsides are clear-cut. And when mountaintops are removed and trees are clear-cut and slurry ponds are created - you know, these chemical ponds meant to treat coal - and all of these things run down the mountain, which would naturally have some measures to deal with water naturally, you know, mosses, trees, natural river patterns that have all been disrupted. And so you get this wave of chemical mess carrying also logs and equipment. So, yeah, the devastation is made double by the fact that the land was so degraded.

SHAPIRO: How far have you gotten through assessing what is lost and what is salvageable?

GIBSON: Well, we're optimistic. I mean, you know, we're still in the early stages. We cleaned out what we could. We froze the documents we could freeze. We've sent off audiovisual documents to various repositories throughout the country. So we haven't gotten all the information back on that yet. But we're optimistic that, you know, with time and money, you know, which is - obviously, money is a big part of it, the majority of these materials can be saved. You know, Appalshop has stewarded all types of artistic items representing culture and art from the region, from photographs to furniture, music from folks such as Hazel Dickens...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUSTED")

HAZEL DICKENS: (Singing) The bills are all due. The babies need shoes. I'm busted. Cotton is down a quarter a pound. I'm busted. Got a cow that's gone dry, a hen that won't lay, a big stack of bills getting bigger each day. The county's gonna haul my belongings away. I'm busted.

GIBSON: ...Earl Gilmore...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EARL GILMORE: Oh, what a time. Isn't it something? Oh, OK. Should we sing...

GIBSON: ...African American musician who existed as a gay man in the region when it was difficult enough just to be an African American musician.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GILMORE: (Singing, inaudible).

GIBSON: We've expanded our capacity to restore damaged materials over the past two decades to an incredible degree. It's just really a financial question.

SHAPIRO: As you think about what a warming planet means for the future, are you thinking about relocating Appalshop so something like this can't happen again?

GIBSON: No. I think the majority of staff find our presence in the region to be really important for the region. We've been a generator, a locus of creative thought and expression in the region for 50 years. And we have a lot of employees, 33, which makes us large in a town of 2,000. So, you know, we don't want to pile on. Instead, we want to try and be a symbol of what life can look like here, how we can rebuild and why we ought to rebuild. But that sort of thumbing our nose in the face of conventional, rational economic theory of self-interest, perhaps, is some of Appalshop's character.

SHAPIRO: You wrote in an op-ed for the Louisville Courier-Journal, we must take action to make sure events like this don't happen again. What kind of action do you want to see?

GIBSON: I think we have to get serious about climate change. We have to get behind the understanding that these things are real. And how are we going to reorient our life to handle the reality that we have created for ourselves? This seems to be too late for us to reverse course. There is damage that we can prevent from further happening if we take drastic and important measures. But it's hard.

SHAPIRO: If I were to walk through the streets of Whitesburg, Ky., today, what would it look like?

GIBSON: A town rebuilding. It would look like a place that has had a devastating, catastrophic event happen in the low lying areas. In the high places, it's less apparent. But as you know, the high places rely on the low places. And perhaps that's a larger metaphor for this entire event.

SHAPIRO: That's Alex Gibson, executive director of Appalshop in Whitesburg, Ky. Thanks a lot.

GIBSON: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.