LEBURN, Kentucky — As floodwaters receded, survival stories surfaced Tuesday of victims who were awakened from their sleep by alarms and quickly found themselves in their homes with floating furniture blocking the doors.
They described the experience as surreal and recalled wading through waist-deep water to reach loved ones, only to be rejected by the swift current or watch as trucks and uprooted trailers were swept away.
Many said everything they owned was either taken by the deluge or destroyed.
“All we have are clothes that we wear,” said John Whitaker, a retiree who lived with his wife Susie in their now-ruined Hindman home 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 swept at his door.
“My mother left me this house,” Miller said. “I just rebuilt it from end to end. It destroyed my home and everything in it.”
Miller and the Whitakers were among the hundreds of Knott County residents who took refuge this week at the Sportsplex in Leburn, a sports facility converted into a shelter for storm survivors.
Exceptional rain, historic floods
The worst of the flooding happened Wednesday night through Thursday morning, the result of an historic storm in eastern Kentucky that struck while most people were asleep and inundated the Howlers so quickly that most escape routes were cut off.
Dustin Jordan, the science and operations officer for the National Weather Service in Kentucky, said that before the storm his agency “issued numerous flash flood warnings and also upgraded them to catastrophic, which is pretty much the highest rating 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 rainfall,” Jordan said. “The main takeaway from this is that flash flooding from overnight rains is very dangerous. It is very difficult for people to get to safety at night. So that’s part of it. A lot of people sleep and then have to get out very, very quickly.”
William Haneberg, director of the Kentucky Geological Survey, said the rain had come so quickly that there really was no time to escape, even if they heeded the weather service’s warnings.
“It’s mountainous terrain and the valleys are very narrow,” he said. “Many of the affected areas are very remote. It can take an hour to drive through the winding mountain roads. In many remote areas, there may be only one way out. So if you wait too long, the bridges can get washed out.”
People also tend to turn off storm warnings, and generational ties to the land in Appalachia make some reluctant to leave, even knowing they live in a flood-prone area, Haneberg said.
“People are attached to this country because maybe their great-grandparents built the house or something,” he said. “So it’s a big cultural issue to say, OK, just move.”
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said Tuesday there have been 37 confirmed deaths from the flooding and hundreds more unreported, spread across five counties. Seventeen of those deaths were reported in Knott County, and four of the dead are children of the same family, he said.
A scramble to escape to a higher level
Whitaker said he and his wife thought they were gone too when their house suddenly filled with water.
“There was enough water to float everything in the room,” he said. “Everything swam around until the water receded. The fridge was upside down. Two of the beds were floating against the ceiling so hard they ripped the ceiling open.”
Mary Arlin Gibson, who lives in Pine Top with her husband, said she was woken up by a “gurgling” noise from the bathroom and went to investigate.
“All of a sudden, the water came through the vents, and then we were waist-deep in water,” she said. “We were locked in the bedroom because the furniture started to float. We couldn’t open doors or anything.”
Gibson said they escaped through a bedroom window and climbed a hill where their neighbor was crossing the storm in his truck. She said the three stayed there for six hours until it was safe to come down.
Cathy Jones, who lives in the Stanford Branch with her 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 panicked when her brother-in-law told her he saw a truck “pass by his mother’s house and there was a trailer that just hit a tree in her yard.” Then they lost power and the phone was dead.
As dawn broke, she said her home was surrounded by swirling water, but Stamper grabbed a stick and ventured outside to reach her mother.
“The water was up to her waist,” said Jones, who watched her wife climb to higher ground despite the swift current. “Miraculously, she got through and yelled, ‘You coming too!’ I said, ‘No, I don’t want to die!’”
Jones said she could hear trees cracking.
“About half an hour later I could see her coming back,” Jones said of her wife. “She said, ‘I couldn’t get through.'”
Luckily, the family was later reunited at the shelter, she said.
For three nights, Knott County Coroner Corey Watson watched over the dead at his Hindman funeral home, which was cut off from much of the world by his county’s sudden flooding.
With no 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 dying in such traumatic ways,” Watson said. “Our county was hit pretty hard by the water, but we’re recovering. We stand together.”
Watson said people in the area are no strangers to flash floods, but it wasn’t something he experienced.
“We usually have a few, maybe one or two floods a year,” he said. “Minimal damage, nothing bad. I’m 33 and that’s the highest amount of rain and damage I’ve seen from a natural disaster.”
Watson said he settled into the funeral home after he had to be rescued from his home, which is in a remote corner of the county. He said he lost his electricity and cellphone service and had “no idea” the danger he was in until he got to the funeral home.
“I didn’t do that until it was over,” he said. “People ran over here to the funeral home.”
Minyvonne Burke reported from Kentucky, Melissa Chan from New York and Corky Siemaszko from New Jersey.
https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/kentucky-flood-survivors-say-was-no-time-escape-deluge-rcna41152 Kentucky flood survivors say there was no time to escape the deluge