The catastrophic floods killed 39 people and displaced thousands. A month later, nearly 500 are still living in state parks and other shelters.

PRESTONSBURG, Kentucky — Nearly a month after deadly floods engulfed their homes, some eastern Kentuckians sheltering in state parks continue to wrestle with the same life-defining question — whether to rebuild where they call home or rebuild elsewhere should start.

Ivallean Smith, who woke to the rising tide to find her Chihuahua licking her hand, hopes to return to the property she owns and loves. If she stays there, she says, she’ll have to raise her new home with blocks to protect herself from the terror she experienced late last month when the rain never seemed to stop.

Cynthia Greathouse has already made up her mind – she and her husband are hoping to head to Florida soon. Greathouse was nearly swept away by the tide. Starting over somewhere else seems easier.

Meanwhile, John Bailey is still unsure of what’s next. His family’s house was destroyed by the water and his children don’t want to go back.

For now, they’re all staying in hotel-style rooms at Jenny Wiley State Resort Park, an Appalachian vacation retreat. At the end of last week, 455 people were still housed in Kentucky state parks, churches, schools and community centers, Gov. Andy Beshear said.

For those displaced by the flood, the decision to stay or leave will be critical to the future of eastern Kentucky, where the decline of the coal industry has added to the region’s hardships.

Despite his indecisiveness, Bailey sounded upbeat on Tuesday, knowing things could have been worse. Disastrous flooding claimed at least 39 lives in eastern Kentucky.

“We’re a lot better off than some people,” he said. “Some people have lost their families.”

Flood victims said they were treated with kindness at Jenny Wiley, known for towering pines, moose-watching tours and fishing on Dewey Lake. Meals have been provided by state parks, the American Red Cross, and communities. But for displaced families, the focus is on the future.

Federal emergency employees were on site. Other services included crisis counseling and assistance in replacing lost driver’s licenses, as well as finding unemployment benefits in the event of a disaster.

Jenny Wiley’s staff commended the park’s staff for the hospitality shown to them. And they commended Bescher for taking up their cause. The Democratic governor has urged the Federal Emergency Management Agency to speed up approvals of requests for assistance.

In his latest move, Beshear called the Kentucky legislature for a special session starting Wednesday to consider an aid package for eastern Kentucky. In his video announcement, Beshear spoke about efforts to provide temporary shelter for people displaced by the floods.

“We are working to stabilize our workforce through a caravan program where we already have almost 100 caravans full and more are on the way,” he said.

As of Tuesday, Smith, 60, had spent four days with Jenny Wiley, making her and her adult son relative newcomers. Since her house collapsed, she has spent time with relatives and a night at a car wash.

Your vehicle was destroyed by flooding. She was hoping a friend would take her to the courthouse to get the documents FEMA requested. Her decision isn’t final yet, but she’d love to return to the land that’s hers — though she knows she won’t find much there.

“We lost everything,” Smith said.

Some normalcy returns for Bailey’s family on Wednesday as his three children start a new school year. A school bus will pick them up and drop them off at the park, he was told.

When asked if he would like to rebuild on the property he owns, Bailey’s thoughts turned to his 16-year-old son.

“He’s not even going to go back and watch it right now,” Bailey said.

He’s not sure where they might move, though he did mention West Virginia as a possibility. But he won’t do anything without considering what the weather might do.

“I really want to get out of the flooded area,” he said.

Flood water destroyed Bailey’s home, shifting it on the foundation and leaving the floors looking like “a roller coaster”. When he checked around 4:30 a.m. that fateful morning, the nearby creek was within its banks, he said. At 7:10 a.m. the water was up to his ankles. About 20 minutes later, it reached his stomach.

Bailey, his girlfriend, her sister and his children set off. They have lived in the park ever since.

Bailey said he is awaiting a decision from FEMA on his relief request. His family have “little” savings to fall back on, he said, but “it’s going fast.” Bailey said he used to work in the oil and gas fields but is now disabled.

Greathouse, 54, has no intention of returning to her trailer. During the Flood, she was rescued by men who chained her vehicle and pulled it out of the surging waters with their truck.

Unable to return home, she said she slept in her car for several nights until a church referred her to Jenny Wiley. She’s been there for about three weeks.

Greathouse’s husband emerged from hospital Thursday after being treated for a hernia, she said. They are awaiting approval for FEMA assistance, but once that is done they plan to move to the Daytona, Florida area. She has family there, she said.

“Start a new journey and get out of here,” said the lifelong Kentuckian. “There’s really nothing here that has something to offer us all.”

As she continued to contemplate the thought, she softened at the thought of cutting ties with her home state.

“I always come home,” she said. Kentucky faces a long recovery from catastrophic flooding

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