After a Flood, Saving Appalachia’s History Piece by Piece

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The small town of Whitesburg, Kentucky, was hit hard by record floods last year, resulting in devastating damage to the Appalshop, a cultural and arts center that has been a staple in the community for 54 years. The rain was relentless, followed by slippery mud that baked under the heat and made the recovery efforts even more challenging. Caroline Rubens, the archive director at Appalshop, described the flood as “all-consuming.”

Appalshop, which started as a film workshop in 1969, expanded its mission to include documenting and celebrating Appalachian culture through various art forms such as theater, music, photography, and literature. Over the years, they have amassed a vast collection of archival items that serve as a repository of central Appalachian history.

Despite the challenges, Appalshop has managed to recover over 13,500 archival items since the flood, including videos, audio recordings, photographs, and artwork. Iron Mountain, a data management company specializing in preserving and protecting cultural heritage assets, has played a crucial role in this recovery effort. They have provided storage facilities in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for about 9,000 audiovisual items, many of which are being cleaned and digitized for an expanded online library. Additional items have been distributed among labs in New Jersey and Maryland, as well as Appalshop’s temporary space in Whitesburg.

Appalshop has not let the flood deter its community programming. They recently held their annual summer documentary institute and organized a community gathering to commemorate the anniversary of the flood, which included the premiere of a new documentary called “All Is Not Lost.” However, the struggles they face are still evident. The structural soundness of Appalshop’s building is in question, and it is estimated that it will cost upwards of $5 million to restore or rebuild. The flood destroyed the ground floor, which housed the theater, radio station, gallery space, and climate-controlled vault.

While many of the audio and visual materials have been recovered, there are still challenges in preserving the collection. Some negatives and cassette tapes were irreparably damaged, and an estimated 15 to 20 percent of the collection may not be salvageable. This serves as a reminder of the perils of climate change and the importance of preserving history.

Iron Mountain is eager to raise awareness about how climate change is impacting our past. Worsening severe weather events like hurricanes and wildfires pose a threat to archives and the ability to access firsthand accounts of historical events. Appalshop’s executive director, Alex Gibson, deeply appreciates Iron Mountain’s support, as it allows them time to recover and seek funding for full restoration.

Appalshop’s mission extends beyond documenting and celebrating Appalachian culture. It also challenges narratives and addresses the economic inequality in the region. The flood emphasized the hardships faced by poor people and the need for neighbors to come together and support one another. Appalshop aims to facilitate these connections through initiatives like their community radio station, WMMT. They have converted an R.V., nicknamed the Possum Den, into a mobile studio for the radio station, allowing them to reach listeners beyond Whitesburg. The station offers a sense of connection, tradition, and familiarity to Appalachians both near and far.

Amidst the challenges and ongoing recovery efforts, the spirit of Appalshop remains strong. They continue to play a crucial role in documenting and preserving the history and culture of Appalachia, ensuring that future generations have access to their rich heritage.

About Emily Maya

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