Former coal town rallies in the face of Kentucky floods

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By ALLEN G. BREED
National AP Editor

FLEMING-NEON, Ky. (AP) — Barely a week later flood waters swept through downtown and left a foot of mud and twisted, gutted buildings along Main Street, an incongruous sight appeared: a flashing sign declaring JR’s barbershop “OPEN.”

As National Guard troops patrolled outside and volunteers on backhoes piled up debris, JR Collins stood behind his barber chair, giving one of his regulars a touch-up. Like most in Fleming-Neon, Collins comes from a mining-based family – both of his grandfathers worked in coal – and he has remained in the close-knit town even as the industry dwindled and d others fled. Those who remain are determined to prove that their community is more than just coal.

And they’ve come together to make sure Collins’ hair salon and other businesses reopen amid devastating floods who killed more than three dozen in eastern Kentucky.

“They were there with shovels and squeegees and water, and people packing and kids helping,” Collins said over the din of air conditioning and a dehumidifier in her store. “They are good, hard-working people who like to help others and support each other.”

Fleming-Neon was once made up of two towns: Fleming, a company town founded in the early 1900s by the Elkhorn Coal Corp. for the sole purpose of mining, and Neon, a former logging camp.

Fleming was led by Elkhorn and named after one of its leaders. The company issued its own money, and workers used it to rent company-owned homes and property from the company store or local businesses. Neon was an independent, free city where U.S. government greenbacks, not corporate certificates, were legal tender — but it thrived coal glow nearby.

Fleming and Neon prospered with the business and the industry. The dates that can still be seen today on the brick storefronts testify to the prosperous years.

“We had department stores, we had grocery stores, we had restaurants, we had dry cleaners. We had a theater,” said 73-year-old Fleming-Neon Mayor Susan Polis. “You didn’t have to leave here to have, to get anything.”

But as the mines became mechanized, the population dwindled in Fleming as well as in Neon. In the late 1970s, former rival cities merged under a single government in an effort to pool resources, but the bleeding continued.

Today, only about 500 people remain. And on July 28, the waters of Wright Fork rose, threatening to further devastate this valley of people who have long extracted the riches of the earth. But there’s a spark in Fleming-Neon that so far has refused to go out.

A multipurpose center was to open in a former car dealership about two weeks after the storm hit. Jeff Hawkins, a longtime educator who has lived here since he was a teenager, said the project, dubbed Neon Lights, would include a performing arts studio, internet cafe, event space and innovation incubator.

“We wanted a space for the kids to be active, to dance, to sing, whatever,” he said. “Upstairs we would set up a robotics lab and a computer coding lab.”

This dream is not dead, just postponed. For now, the cleared space serves as an emergency supply distribution center.

The rains returned last weekend, prompting a brief evacuation on Friday evening. But while some feared it, Emory Lee Mullins chose to see it as a blessing.

“It’s pretty well washed out,” Mullins said, using a push broom to sweep the last silt from the creek into the gutter outside her flower shop. “Every little swipe gets it, right?”

Five feet of water had nearly drained the Letcher Flower Shop, which Mullins had purchased 25 years ago. But as the rain poured down, he tore down soggy walls, confident he would reopen in a few weeks.

“Because flowers make people feel good,” he said. “They’re going to need flowers.”

It’s been hard to break coal’s grip on those mountains, Hawkins said, describing a corporate strategy to “make as much money as possible and move on.”

“For decades the money went here and didn’t get reinvested here,” he said. “And that’s what we have left.”

But Fleming-Neon was also left with tenacity. And for every story of tragedy, Hawkins said, there are six more of kindness and grace.

“People here, they persevere. They are resilient. They have courage,” he said.

Volunteers who have come from other states also see this spirit. Ken Cagle from North Carolina said it made him consider retiring here: “It’s just amazing, the people here, how much they just want to help other people.”

And Hawkins intends to stay among them in these hills. He sees the flood disaster as an opportunity to reinvent Fleming-Neon and Eastern Kentucky.

“How do we reinvent what we can be? ” he said. “And in a way that we’re not just surviving, but moving towards a point of prosperity.”

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