Kentucky stations struggle to report on — and recover from — historic flooding

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WMMT's flood-damaged studio in Whitesburg, Ky.

Téa Wimer, who leads community radio station WMMT in Kentucky, couldn’t reach the station when record-shattering floodwaters poured through the eastern part of the state last week.

“I was trapped at the top of my holler for almost four days with no water, no electricity. I was having to conserve my phone battery,” they said. “I couldn’t even respond to the situation as station manager, because first I was just trying to make sure my family was OK.”

By the time roads were cleared and Wimer was able to reach the station, the news was devastating. The North Fork of the Kentucky River, which runs behind WMMT’s building in Whitesburg, had overflowed its banks, submerging the station’s first-floor studio.

“We’re a total loss as far as studio equipment is concerned,” Wimer said Wednesday. More than a week after the flooding, power remained out at WMMT’s mountaintop transmitter site near Mayking, Ky., leaving the station’s signal off the air until crews can clear trees and downed power lines along the damaged road leading up to the tower.

It was a devastating loss for not only WMMT but also its parent organization, Appalshop. The nonprofit group started as a film workshop and grew over more than 50 years into one of the largest organizations documenting Appalachian traditions and arts. In addition to WMMT, which has been on the air since 1985, Appalshop’s archives include decades of film, video and audio.

More than 50 volunteers converged on Appalshop’s headquarters in the days after the flood, rinsing and drying archival materials in hopes of salvaging them. 

Meanwhile, Wimer and the rest of WMMT’s small staff — five full-timers and about 30 volunteer DJs — were dealing with their own needs in the aftermath of the flood, including damage to the chief engineer’s home. The station has one news reporter, Katie Meyers, who works as part of the Ohio Valley ReSource regional journalism collaborative. Collaborative members pitched in to assist with coverage of the biggest news story in the region in generations. 

Covering the disaster

The region’s NPR station also sprung into action as the waters rose. Based at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, 90 miles west of Whitesburg, WEKU covers the eastern half of the state over four transmitters, including WEKH in Hazard, one of only a few broadcast signals that remained on the air throughout the flooding.

On a good day, WEKU has limited news staffing, said general manager Mike Savage. When the flooding hit, it was not a good day.

“We’re essentially a news team of four, and of those four, one of our reporters left a few weeks ago and the other one is on vacation,” he said. “So this happened with us being down 50 percent of our staff.”

News director Stan Ingold worked from the studio in Richmond, reaching out over phone and by Zoom to the affected areas. Reporter Stu Johnson traveled to the flood zone to report in person, sacrificing the opportunity to attend a former colleague’s funeral in order to make flood coverage his priority. 

“These guys are all in. Everybody’s all in,” Savage said.

“The problem with getting out in the field is that eastern Kentucky is so remote and travel is very hazardous right now,” Savage said. “There are still a lot of areas without power, there are still a lot of areas without cell coverage, and then there’s issues with travel on roads. You just can’t get through certain places, and you don’t know where those are. It’s not like a major city where everything is mapped out and you can look and go, ‘I can go around that.’ In rural Kentucky, it’s different and very challenging to cover.”

In addition to reporting for WEKU and its partner stations in the Kentucky Public Radio consortium, Johnson and Ingold stayed busy filing stories for NPR’s newscasts and newsmagazines. 

“It was a priority because, you know, flyover country is sort of a buzzword, but in reality, it exists,” Savage said. “When stuff happens here, it’s out of sight and out of mind to the national media. Our goal has been to try to paint that picture for the country so they can really see what’s going on.” 

Providing mutual aid

While juggling coverage for local and national audiences, Savage also reached out to offer assistance to WMMT, coordinating an emergency donation from the Ohio Valley ReSource partners to provide for some of the Whitesburg station’s immediate needs.

“Last time we checked, it was almost $6,000, which is just enough to give them gas cards and money, whatever they need to help their staff,” Savage said. “We feel that’s the least we can do.”

“It was so, so, so appreciated,” Wimer said. “It’s almost overwhelming how many times we’ve been contacted by stations saying, we’re here, we have donations for you if you want them, equipment if you want it.” 

The National Federation of Community Broadcasters and CPB have also stepped forward with offers of equipment and support once WMMT can restore power to its transmitter and can begin thinking about rebuilding its studio.

That may be a challenging process, Wimer said, since the Appalshop building where WMMT’s studios were located may not be usable for another month or two, requiring the station to find a temporary studio home.

“Most of the areas that we would use in Letcher County are being used right now for distribution sites, flood relief efforts, and so forth,” Wimer said. “So it’s a really sticky situation.”

By next week, WMMT hopes to be back on the air in some capacity, as well as providing information updates on social media to listeners with broadband access. Wimer also hopes to have a more formal fundraising effort in place to provide the station with the funding it will need to rebuild.

“Right now, I would say taking care of individuals in Letcher County and their needs is the first and foremost priority,” they said. “And then what’s going to be the biggest help is just having the money to get what we need in this time.”

“I’m just really so thankful to feel that community radio love and support,” Wimer said. “I think for a lot of other community broadcasters in the country, WMMT is very special.”

Planning for the long term

While WMMT works on returning to the air and rebuilding its devastated physical plant, WEKU’s Savage is already thinking about how best to cover the long process of rebuilding the devastated towns of eastern Kentucky.

“We’re going to have to be committed to covering it,” he said, establishing it as a reporting beat similar to the aftermath of the tornadoes that damaged western Kentucky last year.

“There’s a theme that goes to this flooding issue that has been sort of hidden and under public view, which is the poor infrastructure that’s just never rebuilt or kept up properly,” Savage said. “For us, we’re pulling double duty, because we’re reporting on the crisis and then we’re thinking about how we’re going to report on the underlying issues after this settles down.”

WEKU is already thinking about its own infrastructure. The station has recently replaced several aging transmitters to ensure consistent coverage of the region and is hoping for funding for more robust backup generators to keep those signals on the air if power is lost. Savage said his staff is also looking into more remote technology to bring voices from the region to its airwaves when cellular networks and internet are unreliable. 

The ongoing coverage will be personal for both stations.

“There’s a lot of emotion because the staff have family and friends who live in eastern Kentucky, and it’s just heartbreaking,” Savage said. “To see the governor doing his press conferences talking about more deaths, and there’s still a certain amount of PTSD from dealing with COVID. That’s really the hardest part.”

At WMMT, Wimer is trying to avoid overloading the station’s lone reporter. “As you can imagine, she’s been inundated with news and information but also trying to take care of herself with all the trauma that she’s experiencing,” Wimer said.

As the death toll from the floods rises, Wimer said that all of Appalshop’s staffers are safe, including its interns from the Appalachian Media Institute.

“Everyone was accounted for,” they said. “Some people were not so lucky materially, and lost their homes, lost their cars, but everybody is at least safe and alive and heading towards rebuilding again.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that WEKU and its Kentucky Public Radio partners contributed $6,000 to WMMT. The funds came from WEKU and other Ohio Valley ReSource partners.

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