LEBURN, Ky. — As the floodwaters receded, tales of survival emerged Tuesday from victims who were roused from sleep by alerts and quickly found themselves trapped in their homes by floating furniture blocking the doors.
They described the experience as surreal, recalling how they had to ford through waist-deep water to reach loved ones only to be turned back by the swift current or watch as trucks and uprooted trailers were swept away.
Many said everything they owned was either taken or destroyed by the deluge.
“All we have is clothes we are wearing,” said John Whitaker, a retiree 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 his entire life, said he left his house reluctantly when the floodwaters were lapping at his door.
“My mom left me this home," he said. "I just remodeled it from one end to the other. It destroyed my home and everything in it.”
Miller and the Whitakers were among the hundreds of Knott County residents who took shelter this week in the Sportsplex in Leburn, a sports facility that has been transformed into a shelter for storm survivors.
Extraordinary rain, historic floods
The worst flooding happened Wednesday night into Thursday morning, the result of a historic storm in eastern Kentucky that occurred while most people were sleeping and that inundated the hollers so quickly it cut off most escape routes.
Dustin Jordan, the National Weather Service’s science and operations officer in Kentucky, said that before the storm his agency "issued numerous flash flood warnings and also upgraded them all the way up to catastrophic, which is pretty much the highest level you can go, 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 totals," Jordan said. “The biggest thing that you can take from this is that flash flooding from nighttime rainfall is very dangerous. It’s very difficult for people to get to safety at night. So that’s part of it. A lot of people are sleeping, and then having to get out very, very fast.”
William Haneberg, director of the Kentucky Geological Survey, said the rains came so fast there really was no time to escape, even if they heeded the weather service alerts.
“It’s mountainous terrain and the valleys are very narrow," he said. "A lot of the areas affected are very remote. It may take you an hour to go through the curving mountain roads. In a lot of the remote areas, there may only be one way out. So if you wait too long, the bridges may be washed out.”
People also have a tendency to tune out storm warnings, and generational ties to the land in Appalachia make some reluctant to leave, even if they know they live in a flood-prone area, Haneberg said.
"People are tied with that land because maybe their great-grandparents built the house or something," he said. "So it’s a huge cultural issue to say OK, just move.”
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said Tuesday that there were 37 confirmed deaths as a result of the flooding and hundreds more still unaccounted for, spread out over five counties. Seventeen of those fatalities were 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 goners, too, when their house suddenly started filling up with water.
“There was enough water to float everything in the room," he said. "Everything was floating around until the water receded. The refrigerator was upside down. Two of the beds were floating so hard against the ceiling that they were tearing the ceiling up.”
Mary Gibson, who lives in Pine Top with her husband, Arlin, said she was awakened by a "gurgling" sound coming from the bathroom and went to investigate.
"All of a sudden the water started coming through the vents, then the water was up to our waists," she said. "We got trapped in the bedroom because the furniture started floating. We couldn’t open up no doors or nothing.”
Gibson said they escaped through a bedroom window and scrambled up a hill to where their neighbor was riding out the storm in his truck. She said the three of them stayed there for six hours until it was safe to come down.
Cathy Jones, who lives in 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 came down in sheets.
Jones said they began to panic when her brother-in-law told her he saw a truck “float by his mommy’s house and there was a trailer who just hit a tree in their yard.” Then they lost power and the phone went dead.
When dawn broke, she said their house was surrounded by swirling water but Stamper grabbed a stick and ventured out to reach her mother.
"The water was up to her waist," said Jones, who watched her wife get to higher ground despite the swift current. "Miraculously, she got through and yelled, 'Are you coming, too!' I said, 'No, I don't want to die!'"
Jones said she could hear the sounds of trees crashing.
“About a half hour later, I could see her coming back," Jones said of her wife. "She said, 'I couldn't get through.'"
Thankfully, the family was later reunited at the shelter, she said.
Swift water felt 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 packed with clothes. But the trailers crashed into each other and were swept away.
“I just heard that metal crunch like you would crunch a soda can,” Mosley said. “... I found a few pieces of my daughter’s mobile home wrapped around a tree.”
The two held on to each other as they made their way to a car parked on higher ground. The water was up to Mosley's chest. They dared not lift their feet.
“You could feel the water rushing underneath. If you’ve been in the ocean when the undercurrent hits, that’s what it felt like,” Mosley said.
“Because it was dark and because it was mud, you could feel it, but you couldn’t see where you were stepping — and you couldn’t pick your feet up, because if you pick your feet up, you were gone,” she said. “So, we were just kind of scooting our feet hoping we didn’t fall.”
‘We’re standing together’
For three nights, the Knott County coroner, Corey Watson, watched over the dead in the funeral home he operates in Hindman, cut off from much of the world by the sudden flooding that swamped his county.
Without power or running water, Watson relied on generators donated by friends to keep the lights on at the Nelson-Frazier funeral home.
“It’s troubling to see so many people pass away in such a traumatic way,” Watson said. “Our county has been beaten down pretty hard by the water, but we’re recovering. We’re standing together.”
Watson said people in the area are not strangers to flash flooding, but this was nothing like he had experienced.
“We usually have a few, one or two floods a year, maybe,” he said. “Minimum damage, nothing bad. I’m 33, and this is the most amount of rain and damage I’ve ever seen from a natural disaster.”
Watson said he wound up bunking at the funeral home after he had to be rescued from his home, which sits in a remote corner of the county. He said he lost his power and cellphone service and “had no idea” how much danger he was in until he got to the funeral home.
“I didn’t until it was over with,” he said. “People were running here to the funeral home.”
CORRECTION (Aug. 3, 2022, 9:45 a.m.): A previous version of this article misstated the name of a Pine Top woman who escaped with her husband through a bedroom window. She is Mary Gibson, not Mary Arlin Gibson.
Minyvonne Burke reported from Kentucky, Melissa Chan from New York, and Corky Siemaszko from New Jersey.