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Appalachian cultural hub faces long recovery after devastating floods


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: In the summer of 2022, historic flooding in Eastern Kentucky washed away homes and entire communities, claiming more than 40 lives. It also devastated an important cultural hub for the larger region, Appalshop, home to a large archive of Appalachian history and culture.

Jeffrey Brown first brought us Appalshop's story back in 2018. He recently returned for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown
Jeffrey Brown : Oh, boy, not like what I remember.

Roger May, Operations Director, Appalshop: A lot different?

Jeffrey Brown : It's a center for cultural preservation now struggling to preserve itself, Appalshop in Whitesburg, Kentucky.

Operations director Roger May recalls the mess of water and mud he found when he first entered after the floods.

Roger May: It was hard to reconcile what I was seeing with what I was supposed to be seeing.

Jeffrey Brown : For most of Appalshop's 55-year history, this building teemed with the vibrant sights, sounds, and stories of Appalachia, first through filmmaking, expanding to the renowned Roadside Theater, a radio station, and music classes, all while building an ever-growing, one-of-a-kind archive that documented everything from music to mining.

The central idea, to allow the people of this region to tell their own stories, the good, as well as the hardships.

Willa Johnson, Director of Film Department, Appalshop: I didn't know that you could do journalism in your own community. I didn't know you could tell a story in your small town.

Jeffrey Brown : Willa Johnson runs the youth media program at Appalshop, the same program that first brought her in the door as a 21 -year-old aspiring filmmaker.

Willa Johnson: It was a life-changing moment for me.

Jeffrey Brown : Like everyone here, she says she'd experienced flooding,but nothing like what happened in July of 2022.

Willa Johnson: When we were flooded, it took out the bridge to our community. And so we didn't have cell phone, we didn't have Internet, we didn't have water. We didn't have a way out. I just kept thinking, man, I hope they realize why I'm not at work. I didn't even know Appalshop was underwater.

Seeing it underwater was like seeing such a pivotal place, like a home place being lost.

Jeffrey Brown : One response, do what they have always done.

Filmmaker Oakley Fugate.

Oakley Fugate, Filmmaker, Appalshop: After this happened, your instinct as a filmmaker was, we have to document this?

Oakley Fugate: There was a period where we had to make sure everyone was OK. But when we all got together, we're like, we need to tell this story. This is our community. Appalshop has been documenting it for years.

Jeffrey Brown : Fugate was part of a team that produced "All Is Not Lost" documenting the toll the flood took on their community.

Man: You could see the water. It washed houses away.

Jeffrey Brown : So, why did you call it "All Is Not Lost"? Because a lot was lost.

Oakley Fugate: Yes,but from that came the community itself reaching out, like, strangers just checking in.We have our community. We can build back.

Jeffrey Brown : But building back hasn't been easy. Appalshop, which always relied on a mix of funding sources like grants and private donors, has been forced to ramp up its fund-raising efforts since the flood.

Roger May: The high watermark in here was almost up to my shoulder. So everything in here, and to our theater, our radio broadcast booth everything was underwater.

Jeffrey Brown : The building is now, quite literally, a shell of its former self. It's location in the floodplain means Appalshop will need to find a new home.

The radio station operates out of an R.V. parked outside. Theater productions are on pause, and the staff relocated to a temporary office 14 miles away.

Roger May: This is the archive. So this is the door to the archive back there now.

Jeffrey Brown : Most concerning, even irreplaceable is the film, video, and audio archive.

Woman: We consider it all valuable.

Jeffrey Brown : On our last visit, we'd seen shelves filled to the ceiling,now a dark, mostly empty vault. What was damaged?

Roger May: Well, everything, reel-to-reel films, audio, photo negatives. Every one's a story. Every one meant something. Meant enough to someone at the time to say, hey, I need to record this moment.

This is some type of Appalshop event, a concert, looks like. The flood left its own filter. It's just a whole treasure trove of Appalachian culture that was knocked around and invaded with floodwater. And some of these film canisters were found miles downstream.

Jennifer Grimaudo, Senior Director of Sustainability, Iron Mountain: We spend a lot of time talking about how climate change could impact our future. We spend less time hearing about or thinking about how climate change is impacting our past.

Jeffrey Brown : For Jennifer Grimaudo of data management company Iron Mountain, what happened at Appalshop is part of a much larger problem.

Extreme weather events like the so-called 1,000-year flood that hit Kentucky are becoming more frequent, threatening numerous heritage sites all over the world.

Jennifer Grimaudo: All of those things aren't just impacting our land and our ability to thrive tomorrow. They're impacting our memories. They're impacting these really important sites that help us connect with prior generations.

And if we didn't step in to help Appalshop, there was a real risk that that would be lost forever.

Jeffrey Brown : Since last spring, Iron Mountain has housed more than 9,000 recordings from Appalshop's collection in its cold storage facility free of charge to prevent further degradation.

They also developed a cleaning process so far tested on a handful of videotapes, including this unedited interview from the famed documentary "Stranger With a Camera" about a Canadian filmmaker killed by a property owner while filming in Kentucky in 1967.

Man: He turned and said: "What are you doing?"

And I looked at him, and I saw blood spurting out of this -- the side of his chest.

Jeffrey Brown : What do you think when you see this, when this came back from Iron Mountain?

Roger May: Was just emotionally overwhelmed. It brought tears to my eyes to see this preserved and kept. It's such important work.

Jeffrey Brown : In fact, says May, there is a potential silver lining, if more of this material can be preserved and digitized for the first time.

Roger May: We had a vault in this archive full of material, but we didn't know what was on those reels or on those negatives, you know? And now, as we begin to get those digitized, and they're coming back to us, some of this material we're seeing for the very first time.

Jeffrey Brown : The effort to save the archive revived not only important cultural gems, but also significant personal histories.

A friend came upon a box containing Willa Johnson's notes and material from her very first student film.

Willa Johnson: I said: "How did that survive?" And he said: "It was on a higher shelf."

And then I cried because I was like, much more important things should have been on that higher shelf.

A do-list.

Jeffrey Brown : Including finish.

Willa Johnson: Finish, yes, that's pretty important.

It was just amazing to see and felt so good to see that survive, survive everything.

Jeffrey Brown : What else will survive? And what of the organization itself?

Roger May looks to the long history of this region.

Roger May: I'm confident that we will figure out how to adapt, just like folks in communities like this have for generations. You know, through natural disasters, through the boom and bust of the coal industry, we have figured out ways to stay and to adapt.

Jeffrey Brown : For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Appalshop in Whitesburg, Kentucky.

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