Investigative journalist Jared Bennett ’11 fights for accountability, including in the wake of weather disasters.
By Jared Bennett ’11
In July 22, a once-every-thousand-year flood hit Appalachian eastern Kentucky.
A lingering storm dropped more than a foot of rain in just a few hours, sending water careening down the mountains and into the hollers below. Streams with names like Hell for Certain, Stinking Creek, and Troublesome Creek became raging torrents that took cars, houses, and the lives of 45 people.
In September, I found myself driving around eastern Kentucky. As an investigative reporter, I was there to help tell the story of that flood and how eastern Kentucky was going to recover from a disaster of this magnitude.
I interviewed a woman in the shell of the only home she’d ever known, now with nothing inside but some broken appliances and a muddy bible. I saw the boarded-up buildings of Fleming-Neon, a small coal community completely destroyed by the flood. The mayor gave me a tour of what looked like a ghost town. City hall was now a trailer on the high school football field, and people wondered if they would rebuild or let the town crumble as ruins. I rode in the pickup truck of a county official visiting people who lost everything, moving my microphone away while he spit homegrown tobacco. At one point, we came across a pack of dogs, covered in scabs, dirt and pink insulation fiber, who wouldn’t leave the rubble of their home.
These scenes all took place in the beauty of eastern Kentucky, nestled in lush green mountainsides and winding scenic roads. Surprisingly, the trip made me think of my time at Geneseo.
As an English literature major at Geneseo, I learned to interrogate stories for meaning. Why did the author use this word here? What is this character doing? Who is really telling this story?
I had a vague idea of being a journalist back then. I knew I liked to read, write, and argue. Those are some essential skills for a journalist, but they don’t always make for a good student.
I was a pretty bad student, but my last semester in Geneseo planted the seeds of inquiry that I use every day. I took Professor Beth McCoy’s “hurricane stories” class, where we read Shakespeare in order to understand Hurricane Katrina. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning to take that same critical lens I had been applying to texts and apply it to the world around us, to explain why, in 2005, an American city could be underwater and seemingly left to its own devices.
Like stories, the world is something we make. Things happen for a reason. Through inquiry, we can figure out those reasons and potentially change them.
Those ideas took root that semester in McCoy’s class, but they took a few years to really take hold. I’m now an investigative reporter based in Louisville, Ky. I pore over documents, make hundreds of phone calls, and knock on doors to find out why things are the way they are.
I’ve learned that eastern Kentucky has been exploited and left behind for generations. The region suffers from severe under-investment that left residents and local officials unable to prepare for the worst. The people there are poorer, older, and more unhealthy than pretty much anywhere else in the United States.
My reporting has also introduced me to the concept of “no natural disasters.” Weather hazards like hurricanes, floods, or other storms may be part of nature, but what turns those events into disasters comes from choices made over generations, choices that are rarely appreciated until devastation strikes.
This kind of inquiry — the kind I learned at Geneseo —- is at the heart of my work, and it’s led to concrete change for the people of Kentucky. Once again, I’ve learned that things happen for a reason, and we can only learn those reasons by asking hard questions.
Jared Bennett is a journalist at the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting in Louisville, Ky. In that role, he has covered incarceration and debt collection as well as disaster recovery across the state. His reporting has prompted Congressional inquiries, resulted in more than $7 million in debt relief for struggling Kentuckians, and helped bring about free phone calls for people incarcerated at Louisville’s jail.