July 15, 2015 by Bruce Schreiner and David Stephenson - THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
FLAT GAP, Ky. – Doris Hardin watched the water rise from the window of her mobile home in rural Johnson County. Her lights flickered off then her neighbour banged on the door, shouting for her to flee.
She ran for her car but it was already gone.
“I grabbed my keys and my purse and went out to get my car and it was floating down the creek.”
The floodwaters rising around Hardin Monday afternoon killed one man and one woman, left six more missing and sent rescue crews to comb the hilly Appalachian terrain Tuesday, as the threat of more floods bore down on rescue efforts. Authorities called off the search about 8 p.m. Tuesday, with plans to resume Wednesday morning.
The water swept up Hardin’s trailer, her two cats still inside, and smashed it into a growing heap of mangled debris: other wrecked cars, snapped trees, downed power lines and mobile homes.
“One started and then they all just followed, and started piling into each other,” she said.
Kevin Johnson last saw his son wading through the rushing water with his 74-year-old grandmother on his back.
Scott Johnson had already saved his father, his uncle and sister. The 34-year-old returned to their cluster of trailers for his grandmother and teenage nephew and started to carry them to higher ground. As the flood raged out of control, he wedged his nephew into a high tree before the water washed him and the grandmother away.
The grandmother, Willa Mae Pennington, was found dead Tuesday among debris from their shattered mobile homes, Johnson County Coroner J.R. Frisby confirmed. Scott Johnson remains among the missing. The nephew survived.
Herman Eddie May Sr., 65, was also killed, Frisby said. He was driving alone in a sport-utility vehicle when floodwaters from the Patterson Creek started to sweep him away. He drowned after he got out and was swallowed by the rising water.
Emergency personnel in the hardest-hit neighbourhoods struggled with the debris and difficult communication as they went door-to-door Tuesday, searching for those who might be trapped in their homes, Kentucky State Police Trooper Steven Mounts said. Like Scott Johnson’s nephew, others were also rescued from trees, Price said.
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Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear declared a state of emergency to give local officials immediate access to state resources to assist in recovery efforts.
The search area stretches more than 8 rugged miles, from the town of Flat Gap south to Staffordsville – an area with 500 homes and 1,200 residents about 120 miles east of Lexington, police said at a Tuesday morning news conference. Authorities estimate more than 150 homes were destroyed.
Hebert Hayden, 78, left home with his wife for a doctor’s appointment. While they were away, their mobile home was swept from its foundation and crashed nearby. They lost everything.
“All I can say is God was on our side,” he said. “If we would have been here, we would have drowned.”
Those caught in rushing tides had seconds to make a decision. Hardin sprinted up a hill, as utility poles crashed down around her.
The roads now are lined with empty foundations, where trailers or houses once stood. Cars are flipped upside down and trees uprooted. Fifteen people were treated at a local hospital and released.
Hardin, who is staying now with her father, had still not found her cats Tuesday afternoon, and feared she never would.
“I don’t think anything else is going to be salvageable,” she said.
Authorities worried that the muddy, rushing creek, still swollen Tuesday, had not finished its destruction.
A strong thunderstorm was passing through the area Tuesday evening, dumping heavy rain and lashing the area with high winds.
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Buddy Rogers, spokesman for Kentucky Emergency Management, said the ground is thoroughly saturated from the overnight rains and heavy storms from the past several weeks. The water will have nowhere to go but into roads, yards and homes, he suspects. Many of the same areas are likely to be underwater again. The water-logged ground also threatens to topple more power lines, trees and utility poles in high winds.
“Any more rain at all is going to be detrimental, it will hurt us,” said Bobby Moore, a Johnson County 911 dispatcher. Moore said the flood washed away a number of rural roads and left others clogged with fallen trees and debris, forcing rescuers to turn to all-terrain vehicles to reach homes and search for residents. A helicopter hovered overhead to aid in the search, which included more than 100 from local departments, the state police, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Guard.
The rescue teams battled swarming mosquitoes and soupy humidity as they trudged through knee-deep muck.
“It just wears your legs out to walk,” said Gary McClure, the local emergency management director. “You walk from here to there in that mud and you’re ready to sit down. It just pulls you down.”
Authorities are trying to keep as many people off the roads and out of the area as possible. Rogers recommended that people who live in flood-prone areas find an alternative place to stay until the storms pass. Homes there have no power or phone service, and many have been severely damaged by floodwaters. A shelter was opened at the Paintsville recreation centre, though only a handful of people were there Tuesday afternoon. Most displaced residents are staying at hotels or with family, Moore said.
“We never thought in a million years something would happen like this,” said 26-year-old Alisha Clark, whose trailer washed away with everything she owned inside. Yet she said she was grateful that she and her children made it out alive.
Associated Press writers Claire Galofaro and Rebecca Reynolds Yonker in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this report.