LEBURN, Ky. — As floodwaters receded, stories of survival emerged Tuesday from victims who were awakened by alerts and soon found themselves trapped in their homes by floating furniture blocking doorways.
They described the experience as surreal, recalling how they had to walk through waist-deep water to reach loved ones only to be swept away by the swift current or watch uprooted trucks and trailers being swept away.
Many said that everything they owned was either taken or destroyed by the flood.
“All we have are clothes we wear,” said John Whitaker, a pensioner who lived with his wife, Susie, in their now-ruined home in Hindman for less than a year. “Everything else was in the house. Everything is covered in mud.
Larry Miller, 62, who has lived in Hindman all his life, said he reluctantly left his home when floodwaters lapped at his door.
“My mom left me this house,” Miller said. “I just remodeled it from top to bottom. It destroyed my house and everything in it.
Miller and the Whitakers were among hundreds of Knott County residents who took shelter this week at the Leburn Sportsplex, a sports facility that has been turned into a shelter for storm survivors.
Extraordinary rains, historic floods
The worst flooding occurred from Wednesday evening to Thursday morning, the result of a historic storm in eastern Kentucky that happened when most people were asleep and flooded with screams so quickly it cut off most escape routes.
Dustin Jordan, chief science and operations officer for the National Weather Service in Kentucky, said that prior to the storm, his agency “issued numerous flash flood warnings and also upgraded them to catastrophic, which is about the highest level you can get, which is basically like a flash flood emergency.”
Some areas saw 14 to 16 inches of rain over a five-day period last week, he said.
“You’re talking about unprecedented total rainfall,” Jordan said. “The most important thing you can take away from this is that flash floods caused by overnight rains are very dangerous. It is very difficult for people to get to safety at night. So that’s part of it. Many people sleep, then have to go out very, very quickly.
William Haneberg, director of the Kentucky Geological Survey, said the rains were coming so fast there was really no time to escape, even if they heeded weather service warnings.
“It’s mountainous terrain and the valleys are very narrow,” he said. “Many of the affected areas are very remote. It may take you an hour to navigate the winding mountain roads. In many remote areas, there may be only one way out. So if you wait too long, the bridges risk being swept away.
People also tend to ignore storm warnings, and generational ties to Appalachian land make some reluctant to leave, even though they know they live in a flood-prone area, Haneberg said.
“People are tied to this land because maybe their great-grandparents built the house or something,” he said. “So it’s a huge cultural problem to say OK, just move on.”
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said Tuesday there were 37 confirmed deaths from the flooding and hundreds more still missing, spread across five counties. Seventeen of those deaths have been reported in Knott County, and four of the dead are children from the same family, he said.
A scramble to escape to higher ground
Whitaker said he and his wife thought they were dead too, when their house suddenly started to fill with water.
“There was enough water to float everything around the room,” he said. “Everything was floating until the water receded. The refrigerator was upside down. Two of the beds were floating against the ceiling so hard they were tearing the ceiling.
Mary Arlin Gibson, who lives in Pine Top with her husband, said she was woken by a “gurgle” coming from the bathroom and went to investigate.
“All of a sudden the water started coming through the air vents and then the water was up to our waists,” she said. “We got trapped in the bedroom because the furniture started floating around. We couldn’t open any doors or anything.”
Gibson said they escaped through a bedroom window and climbed a hill to where their neighbor was driving through the storm in his truck. She said the three of them stayed there for six hours until it was possible to get down safely.
Cathy Jones, who lives in Stanford Branch with his wife, Jennifer Stamper, said she was on the phone with her brother-in-law, who lives nearby, around 2 a.m. Thursday as the rain poured down.
Jones said they started to panic when her brother-in-law told her he saw a truck “floating by his mom’s house and there was a trailer that had just hit a tree in their court”. Then they lost power and the phone went dead.
At dawn, she said their house was surrounded by swirling water, but Stamper grabbed a stick and ventured out to join her mother.
“The water was waist deep,” said Jones, who watched his wife move to higher ground despite the fast current. “Miraculously, she succeeded and shouted, ‘You’re coming too!’ I said, ‘No, I don’t want to die!'”
Jones said she could hear the sound of trees crashing.
“About half an hour later I could see her coming back,” Jones said of his wife. “She said, ‘I couldn’t get through. “”
Fortunately, the family was later reunited at the shelter, she said.
The flowing water looked like the ocean
In Carrie, a community west of Pine Top, Karen Mosley, 54, and her daughter both lost their mobile homes in the flood. They escaped with a bag full of clothes. But the trailers collided and were swept away.
“I just heard that metal crackle like you’re chewing on a can of soda,” Mosley said. “…I found some pieces of my daughter’s mobile home wrapped around a tree.”
The two clung together as they made their way to a parked car on higher ground. The water was up to Mosley’s chest. They dared not lift their feet.
“You could feel the water flowing below. If you’ve been in the ocean when the undercurrent hits, that’s how you felt,” Mosley said.
“Because it was dark and because it was mud, you could feel it, but you couldn’t see where you were putting your feet – and you couldn’t lift your feet, because if you lift your feet, you were gone.” she says. “So we were just scooting our feet around hoping not to fall.”
“We stand together”
For three nights, Knott County Coroner Corey Watson watched over the dead at the funeral home he operates in Hindman, cut off from much of the world by flash floods that submerged his county.
Without electricity or running water, Watson relied on generators donated by friends to keep the lights on at the Nelson-Frazier funeral home.
“It’s disturbing to see so many people die in such a traumatic way,” Watson said. “Our county has been hit pretty hard by the water, but we are recovering. We stand together.
Watson said locals are no strangers to flash flooding, but that was nothing he had experienced.
“We usually have a few floods, maybe one or two a year,” he said. “Minimal damage, nothing serious. I am 33 years old, and this is the most amount of rain and damage I have ever seen following a natural disaster.
Watson said he ended up sleeping at the funeral home after having to be rescued from his home, which is in a remote corner of the county. He said he had lost his electricity and cell phone service and “had no idea” what danger he was in until he arrived at the funeral home.
“I didn’t until it was over,” he said. “People were running here towards the funeral home.”
Minyvonne Burke reported from Kentucky, Melissa Chan from New York and Corky Siemaszko from New Jersey.