WASHINGTON — During his first official trip after recovering from the coronavirus, President Biden flew to eastern Kentucky on Monday and committed federal resources to families whose homes had been condemned or washed away by some of the worst flooding in the state’s history.
After flying over stranded cars and buses and landing to find toppled homes and a shelled-out school, Mr. Biden told local officials his administration would cover the cost of the emergency response to the torrential rain and flooding that left at least 37 people dead.
“Everybody has an obligation to help,” said Mr. Biden, who was standing in front of a condemned home. He added that he wanted to ensure the area was rebuilt in a way that made communities more resilient to deadly storms, floods and natural disasters that he described as a consequence of climate change.
Mr. Biden also said the legislation that the Senate passed Sunday, which includes the largest expenditures ever made by the federal government to slow global warming and to reduce demand for fossil fuels, would help Kentuckians rebuild. His comments were likely the start of a fresh campaign to galvanize Democratic voters around his signature legislative win ahead of the midterm elections.
But it will take time for such investments to have an impact on disaster-prone communities. Even with available federal funds, many poor and rural areas lack sufficient capacity to rebuild efficiently. Businesses often lack flood-proofing systems, and many homes remain in plains prone to rising waters.
Few of the homes affected by flooding in the areas hardest hit in Kentucky had flood insurance, according to federal data.
Land in Kentucky built to serve coal miners working underneath hills and mountains has been especially vulnerable to floods after many mines shuttered, leaving homes unprotected to rising waters in nearby rivers. Mr. Biden said on Monday that the state would find help in his bipartisan infrastructure package, which tripled, to $700 million annually, a program intended to reduce damage from flooding by buying or elevating homes at risk from floods.
“It really is going to take an all-hands-on-deck approach to rebuild in that kind of way, and that runs head-on into human nature,” said Chad Berginnis, the executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. “I’d imagine after all that suffering, I would just want to get back to normal. That’s the human nature side of this, but it is so important we pause and thoughtfully rebuild so that next flood doesn’t happen.”
That human cost was apparent on Monday. Mr. Biden said it was “incredibly heartbreaking” to see stranded vehicles washed away into creeks and large piles of debris. Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky said the death toll was likely to rise to 38 people.
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Mr. Beshear also made clear the federal system built to help those recovering from disasters could improve, noting that “too many” Kentucky residents had been denied assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency because of technical errors in the application process.
“Too little is paid to those that get through the system,” Mr. Beshear said. “The people of Eastern Kentucky have lost everything. Most just have the clothes left on their back. No insurance, no other coverage. Now is the time to fix this issue.”
FEMA had opened 15 shelters across the state as of Monday and delivered 56 truckloads of water, though some wastewater systems were still not fully operational, according to a FEMA daily briefing document. The agency has deployed hundreds of rescue officials to the state and sent more than $3.6 million in the wake of the deadly storms, according to the White House.
Federal grants remain the best hope for local officials aiming to adapt to climate change but who oversee communities with limited tax bases, such as eastern Kentucky, according to Roy Wright, who ran FEMA’s risk mitigation programs until 2018.
The Biden administration has invested billions of dollars in those programs, including adding new money to a grant program at FEMA called Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities, or BRIC, to try to blunt the effects of climate change.
But the grants are heavily oversubscribed — and communities’ only chance at the money comes if state governments file applications on their behalf.
“They need to lean harder on their state to tap into the dollars that Congress and this administration has made available specifically for this purpose,” said Mr. Wright, who is now president of the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, a research group.
On that front, the people hit by recent flooding have lately struck out. In the most recent round of funding, Kentucky applied for BRIC grants for just two projects, far fewer than most states. And neither project focused on the eastern part of the state.
In the end, it did not matter. FEMA rejected both applications.