After a flood, saving Appalachia's history piece by piece

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After a flood, saving Appalachia's history piece by piece
Mud and water damaged video tape from the Appalachian cultural and arts center Appalshop during restoration and recovery efforts at data management company Iron Mountain, in Moonachie, N.J., July 26, 2023. Many of the more than 13,500 items recovered from the flood-damaged Appalshop after last year’s devastating flooding in southeastern Kentucky are being restored and digitized. (Maansi Srivastava/The New York Times)

by Remy Tumin

NEW YORK, NY.- First came the rain, unforgiving in its force. Then the mud, slippery and smothering before it began to bake under the heat. The humidity only made the task of saving one of the biggest repositories of Appalachian history that much more challenging.

Appalshop, a culture and arts center and a cornerstone of Whitesburg, Kentucky, was underwater.

“It was all consuming,” Caroline Rubens, Appalshop’s archive director, said in a recent interview.

Now, a year after record floods tore through southeastern Kentucky, killing more than three dozen people and displacing hundreds more whose homes were washed away, Appalshop and its community are still writing the next chapter of its 54-year history.

Appalshop started as a film workshop in 1969 but expanded its mission to include documenting and celebrating Appalachian culture through theater, music, photography and literary programs. Over the decades it amassed a rich archive that serves as a repository of central Appalachian history.

The organization has managed to recover more than 13,500 archival items since the flood, including videos, audio recordings, photographs and artwork that document history and life in the Appalachian Mountains, thanks in large part to services donated by Iron Mountain, a data management company that preserves and protects cultural heritage assets.

Iron Mountain is storing about 9,000 audiovisual items in underground facilities in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Many of those items are being cleaned and digitized for an expanded online library. Additional items have been spread among two other labs in New Jersey and Maryland, and in Appalshop’s temporary space in Whitesburg.

Appalshop has converted a recreational vehicle into a new mobile studio for its radio station, giving its staff members the flexibility to be at the scene of emergencies such as the one they weathered in July 2022.

And perhaps most important, the center has not stopped its community programming. Appalshop just wrapped its annual summer documentary institute and held a community gathering to commemorate the anniversary of the flood, including the premiere of a new documentary about the devastation, “All Is Not Lost.”

But you do not have to scratch too far below the surface to see the struggles that Appalshop has navigated over the past year, or the ones that lie ahead.

The structural soundness of Appalshop’s building is in question, and it is likely to cost upward of $5 million to restore or rebuild. The flood eviscerated the ground floor, which housed its theater, radio station, gallery space and climate-controlled vault, where photo negatives and other archival materials were stored.

“We would pick up a negative, and there was nothing there,” Rubens said. “Those were some of the biggest heartbreaks.”

Cassette tapes were taken out of their cases to dry out. Home videos donated by local families came completely unspooled in the floods. Color slides “looked like a psychedelic, abstract image” when held up to the light, Rubens said.

Rubens said that she and her Appalshop colleagues remained “pretty optimistic,” even as she estimated that about 15% to 20% of the collection might not be salvageable. As she manages the restoration work, she is also speaking to archivists at other organizations about the perils of climate change when it comes to preserving history.

“We weren’t ready for what happened,” she said.

It’s a message that Iron Mountain, the data management company whose Living Legacy program is helping Appalshop, is trying to sound the alarm over.

“We talk a lot about how climate change could impact our future,” said Jennifer Grimaudo, the senior director of sustainability at Iron Mountain. “We don’t spend a lot of time talking about how it could — or it is, in the case of Appalshop — impacting our past.”

Grimaudo said worsening severe weather, including hurricanes and wildfires, posed a threat to archives and efforts to preserve history.

“When you lose those archives, you lose access,” she said. “These are firsthand accounts of people who aren’t around to necessarily share their story with us again.”

Most of Appalshop’s audio and visual materials have been recovered, including rare recordings of musical performances and interviews with Appalachian activists; a 1970s interview with Eastern Band of Cherokee leaders; and recordings, images and film footage of Black leaders from across the region.

Alex Gibson, the executive director of Appalshop, said Iron Mountain’s donation of storage and services was a lifesaver.

“It largely allows us time to recover and think about how we can afford full restoration,” he said, noting that members of Appalshop’s staff have spent months applying for grants and searching for other funding sources for the recovery effort.

As it has documented and celebrated Appalachian culture, Appalshop also has countered narratives of what it means to be from Appalachia, Gibson said. Still, the flood highlighted the economic inequality in the region, he said, and “the effects that any kind of trauma can have on poor people.”

“Working through that is difficult and long,” he said. “It requires us all to go next door to our neighbor and ask for a cup of sugar. Appalshop is trying to facilitate the sugar exchanges.”

One way to build those relationships is through community radio. Appalshop spent five months retrofitting an RV, nicknamed the Possum Den, to serve as a new mobile studio for its station, WMMT. The station returned to the airwaves in April with live volunteer DJs spinning bluegrass, hip-hop, electronica and everything in between.

Through its website, the radio station reaches listeners far beyond Whitesburg. But its roots in Appalachia provide a signal for people far from home.

“It serves a very specific purpose that nothing else in the world can really serve, and that’s feeling connected to people and tradition, and hearing people that sound like you on the radio,” said Téa Wimer, the station’s manager. “Those things are really special and important because listeners don’t get to hear it anywhere else.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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