As eastern Kentucky starts to recover from heavy rains and flash floods that have killed at least 37 since July 26 and left hundreds unaccounted for, Gov. Andy Beshear (D) and the state Transportation Cabinet launched a major push to clear and repair damaged roads and bridges.

Responding to a request from Beshear, President Joe Biden on July 29 issued a major disaster declaration for 13 counties.

The state transportation agency reported on Aug. 1 that bridge inspections were proceeding as inspectors could gain access to structures, with 627 bridges assessed in counties declared disaster areas. 

Of those 627, inspectors found 21 county or state bridges that had “issues that range from being impassable because of debris to being completely washed out,” the cabinet said, noting that workers and vehicles are transporting supplies, such as water, cots, ready-to-eat meals and travel trailers.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in an Aug. 1 statement that the region "is reeling" from some of the worst flooding in state history. He said additional fatalities were expected and that “resources are already flowing into the commonwealth to assist local emergency personnel." In Jackson, Ky., flood waters rose to 43.5 ft., exceeding a record set 83 years ago. McConnell said.

"Drone footage shows whole towns submerged," he added. "Roadways have turned into rivers."

Extreme Event Action

The Kentucky flooding is the latest extreme climate event added to others that have become semi-regular occurrences in states where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers flow. In the west, the diametric opposite of flooding, droughts and wildfires, have become just as common. Responding to the billions of dollars in costs already associated with climate impacts, federal and state agencies unveiled a flurry of actions to shore up defenses against flooding, wildfires and drought—seen as the most visible manifestations of a warming planet. 

With just days before the long August recess, the U.S. House of Representatives passed by a nearly party-line vote, 218-199, a group of nearly 50 bills—collectively called the Wildfire Response and Drought Resiliency Act—that are aimed at addressing worsening drought and wildfire impacts.

In northern California, the McKinney Fire in Klamath National Forest spread late last month to more than 52,000 acres, making it the state's largest wildfire so far this year, says the U.S. Forest Service.

"This is a bill that we believe meets the moment for the West," said Rep. Joseph D. Neguse (D-Calif.), in a statement before the July 29 vote.

The House Democrats’ wildfire and drought package would authorize projects to mitigate the risks of drought and wildfire through projects for conservation, desalination and water reuse; ecosystem restoration and protection; and electric grid resilience in extreme weather. It also would raise wages for federal firefighters, and increase funding for communities affected by wildfires. 

If enacted, the package would provide a $1.3-billion boost to projects aimed at producing fresh water from non-traditional sources, namely water reuse and desalination. It would authorize $700 million through a competitive grant program for such large-scale projects and $600 million through the Bureau of Reclamation Title 16 competitive grant program. 

Because the Neguse package only authorizes funds, an appropriations committee must actually allocate them. But if the bill passes and funds are appropriated, the investments would be a significant supplement to those already appropriated through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs law, says Greg Fogel, director of government and policy at the WateReuse Association. “

"The demand still outstrips available dollars, if all this were appropriated, but it definitely would make a dent,” Fogel said in an interview.  

Troy Timmons, director of federal relations and strategic initiatives at the Western Governors' Association, told ENR that “the scale of the need most states are dealing with is unprecedented, and ... massive.” He said that “large-scale recycling and desalination are great incentives to get us to look at the art of the possible, but really, we should look at this as just a down payment” on what needs to be done.

Some comparable components of the wildfire and drought resilience package have already been introduced in the Senate, but the prospects for passage there are not clear. Some GOP lawmakers oppose the package and are unlikely to support it, according to news reports.  

The Biden administration also announced 53 projects from 19 states selected to progress to the next level of evaluation under the Federal Emergency Management Agency Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) competitive grant program. They include a floodwall project for the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment facility in Washington, D.C., and a flood control project in coastal Washington state near Aberdeen and Hoquiam.