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Flood-prone town seeks higher ground

The once-bustling Appalachian coal town of Martin, Ky., has flooded no fewer than 37 times since 1862.  But rather than give up, the folks who remain want to rebuild the town on higher ground.
Moving a Town
Floodwaters in 1984 around the home of Josephine Thompson, seated center, in Martin, Ky., which has flooded at least 37 times since 1862. AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The trucks have come again to haul away soaked sofas and waterlogged mattresses. Cars that weren't moved soon enough have been towed away, their engines and interiors fouled.

The 600 people who remain in this once-bustling coal town are used to it. Martin has flooded no fewer than 37 times since 1862 — four in the past decade alone.

Soon, they hope, the trucks will come to move their town to higher ground.

Townsfolk tired of shoveling soupy water and mud out of their homes and businesses have moved away, leaving behind overgrown lawns and aging storefronts badly in need of paint. The bank is gone. The drugstore and its soda fountains are only distant memories. So are the hardware store, the theater, the restaurants.

Some people stay. They like the quiet small-town feel. And so rather than give up on Martin, they've enlisted the federal government in an ambitious project to rebuild it on higher ground.

The mammoth undertaking has been in the works for the past decade and will take another 10 years and $100 million to complete. The Army Corps of Engineers plans to save Martin by raising its businesses and homes out of the reach of the stream that has wreaked so much havoc over the years.

Forces of nature
For antsy locals who were flooded yet again last month, it can't get done soon enough.

Longtime resident Glenna Simpson has watched Martin's decline from the windows of a general store where she works. While other Appalachian towns worry about downturns in the mining industry, Martin's biggest concern has always been Beaver Creek.

"It's sad," Simpson said, looking out at a string of Main Street buildings still covered in tawny grime from floods past. "It used to be a beautiful town. A busy town."

Already, contractors have carved out a flat spot on a mountainside overlooking downtown that is large enough to accommodate key government structures, including the fire department, city hall, post office, and the only school in town. The aging buildings, weakened by the intermittent soakings, won't be moved to the new site. Instead, they'll be razed and replaced with new ones.

Project manager Stephen M. Porter said the property now occupied by those buildings will be raised 16 feet with the dirt and rock cut out of the mountainside and new homes will be built there, creating a neighborhoods that should remain dry even in the worst of floods. Once the new homes are up, residents will move in, saying goodbye to their low-lying neighborhoods.

The project is unusual but not unprecedented. The Army Corps is also working on flood-proofing Grundy, Va., where the roguish Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River has taken its toll. Like Martin, Grundy is wedged between a maze of mountains in remote Appalachia. And, like Martin, it is subject to the whims of the stream it was built alongside.

Nowhere else to go
In Martin's case, the corps says the flood plain is the only flat land available and there's nowhere else for residents to go.

The town has often fallen victim to Beaver Creek, which snakes its way through funnel-shaped mountain valleys, wide at the top and narrow at the bottom, that rush runoff into streams feeding it.

James Patton said the floods seem to be getting more frequent and severe. In the last 10 years, four major floods have hit Martin, including the one on May 9.

"I've walked the streets of Martin all my life. That was the biggest flood I've ever seen," said Patton, standing outside a row of homes built atop stilts to avoid the flood waters. "I'd say it was at least 10 or 12 feet right here where we're standing. They ran rescue boats up and down the streets."

Patton, concerned his home might topple, stepped from his precariously high porch into a passing boat to wait out the flood.

Anna Risner, owner of the Ebony & Ivory Beauty Shop, said she hopes the latest flood will spur the Corps of Engineers to speed up the project.

"The people just keep leaving," she said. "Who wants to come here and rent a flooded house or buy a flooded house?"

Hoping for the best
Martin native Belinda Jarrell paused from cleaning mud from the family home to reminisce about Martin's glory days, when wide-eyed children routinely gathered at the old soda fountain for refreshments. Martin, she said, seemed so healthy, so robust back then.

"This was the best place to grow up," Jarrell said. "It was absolutely fantastic."

Her view now isn't so rosy, and she wonders aloud whether the town can even survive, despite the efforts of the federal government.

People in the tight-knit community are hoping for the best.

Mayor Thomasine Robinson offers encouragement, reminding residents of what Martin used to be: a booming retail hub in the midst of the Appalachian coalfields.

"We can have all that again," she insists.