FALMOUTH, Ky. - They filed into Falmouth's outdoor arena as the sun set, their chatter drowning out the gurgling of the Licking River a few hundred yards away.
No one seemed to notice the large gray rubber garbage cans marked ''Falmouth'' and ''Butler'' guarding the entrance, to be used as ballot boxes later in the night.
An outsider might have mistaken the gathering for a rite of spring - the first time the community joined as a whole after the bitter cold of winter.
But this was no happy occasion. The more than 1,000 Pendleton County residents gathered at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the fairgrounds' Griffin Center had dire questions about their existence.
Federal, state and local officials had called them there to tell them what programs are available for rebuilding.
''I have flood insurance. Is what insurance pays me deducted from a buyout offer?'' Falmouth resident Elaine Hart asked federal, state and local officials.
''Why is the city going to penalize me to have to pay for a permit to rebuild something I had no control over?'' said Patrick Bass, whose Pendleton Street home suffered major damage.
''When can a buyout happen? I can't pay my mortgage and pay rent and make repairs on my house for long,'' said Tim Cobb, whose Falmouth home might undergo foreclosure by First National Bank in Brooksville.
''Who can help us?'' Angie and Bob Huffman of DeMossville said. ''SBA (the Small Business Administration) turned us down for a loan because we are in debt with our mortgage. Do we wait and let them take the house back?'' Mr. Huffman said.
Lots of questions were asked, some answers were given, and no decisions were made Wednesday.
The swollen Licking River tore through this city March 1. High water caused $36 million damage in Pendleton County: $29 million in Falmouth and $7
million in Butler.
Nearly 200 homes were destroyed; 300 more are being demolished and many businesses suffered tremendous losses.
Because Falmouth participates in the national program, anyone can get flood insurance, National Flood Insurance Program spokeswoman Donna Hall said.
''It's available to anybody, whether you live in the flood plain or not,'' she said. If residents decide to rebuild in the same location, they can still qualify for flood insurance and federal programs if another flood strikes.
Rebuilt homes will have to abide by certain rules: first floors must be raised above the 100-year flood plain.
If a buyout is made, residents can't rebuild on the same property, and those who received flood insurance payments will have that amount deducted from the sale price of their home.
Mike Lynch, hazard mitigation officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said a buyout is the easy and cost-efficient way to move residents out of harm's way. He said a dam or floodwall costs a lot and it could take years just to complete studies.
A buyout was successful in Frankfort for 20 homes on the Kentucky River. ''Several weeks ago, that area was under water, but it didn't matter,'' Mr. Lynch said. ''No one lives there now, no one had to be rescued, and no federal money had to go there.''
A buyout is optional, even if the community as a whole supports it.
''You as the individual property owner have the right to say, 'No, I want to stay here, it is my home and my family,' '' Mr. Lynch said.
Local officials organized the event to give residents information and find out which options the community supports.
But when Falmouth resident Mark Haley asked for a show of hands to see how many supported the buyout, organizers just took the next question.
Local officials have until April 30 to apply for federal money to buy out flood victims. FEMA usually pays 75 percent of the cost with the state covering 13 percent and the local government 12 percent.
Communities must determine how many homeowners want to participate and include them all in one application.
''There are people that feel like there is pie in the sky and free money that's going to come our way, and that's not true,'' Falmouth Councilman Anthony Strong said. ''It's not going to be an easy road.''
County and city leaders said they want residents to tell them what they want to do by putting their feelings in writing, calling and talking to officials.
''There's no percentage we need,'' Mr. Strong said. ''We're just taking an overall picture of things.''
By 9 p.m., most of the residents had left, driven home by cold and frustration. There were no federal workers writing checks at the gates on the way out - just the makeshift rubber can ballot boxes, stuffed with cigarette butts, soda cans and candy wrappers waiting to be tallied.