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The Devastating Floods in Eastern Kentucky (part 1)

             The Devastating Floods in Eastern Kentucky

(Part 1)

(From of the last chapter in my book entitled, “Surrounding™ the Kentucky River, from its beginnings to the end.”)

The deluge began in Eastern Kentucky on the night of July 27, 2022.  I was informed by a resident of Sergent, a mining town on the upper North Fork of the Kentucky River, that when he was woken up at 6:00 AM the next morning, waters had surrounded his home, lifting up whatever they came in contact with, and thrusting them against whatever was in the way of the violent flow of the waters.  Cars had been crushed by the raging torrent.  Repeating thunderstorms accompanied the rain, which in some places over a four-day period, pounded down 16 inches of rainfall, exceeding 600% of normal precipitation for that time period.

            I had traveled over much of the North Fork territory, experiencing the wonders of unique cultures, hidden in such beautiful, mountainous, riverine environments.  Research that led to my journeys as reported in my geographic treatises.  Beauty is easy to write of in Kentucky’s Eastern Mountains, a country surrounded with lovely crenulated variability.

            But it was necessary to temper my earlier observations with the effects of such tragedy in weather.  The National Weather Service reports a “less than 1 in 1,000” chance of that much rain falling over four days in any year.

            The effects were terrifying and terrible.  This is my log of an additional journey along the routes I had recommended earlier.  I traveled them for 17 hours on the Wednesday following the deluge.  These notes will affect your appreciation of the destinations described in my work, and the ways to get there.

            I began by traveling to the mouth of Frozen Creek where it empties into the Kentucky River just downstream from Jackson.  The road down there had been covered with floodwater and was now covered by sand left by the water retreating.  Thick layers of fine clay pasted the slope where a small trail had once led down.  Draining waters had already cut a canyon through these mud layers, forming a treacherous route where once I had traveled.

            With my walking stick, and in a three-point stance, I gingerly slipped down just within the creek’s junction.  I wanted to see again the old bridge pylon that 100 years ago carried a railroad across Frozen Creek on its way from Jackson to the “cannel coal” deposits farther up north.

            The stone block pylon was still there, staring blindly from across the way with a crop of logs and flood debris carried aloft like a new wig.  It would have been a low bridge crossing, not even a third of the height of the modern highway bridge that knew better than to build down so close to the river.  The recent ferocious floodwaters would have carried away that old railroad bridge in a roaring collision of structure and nature, had it not already earlier been removed for reuse as scrap metal.

            When I attempted to retrace my steps, I found the slopes everywhere exceptionally slippery, covered by that slimy deep film of fine, muddy silt.  It covered everything, much as the ash of Mt. Vesuvius had once done at Pompei.  Even with my hiking stick, I was unable to get good purchase with my feet.

            Then I realized the additional horror brought forward by such a massive flow of water.  Your routes of escape are taken away from you!

            In pictures, even videos, what strikes us are the rising waters, watching neighborhood streets slowly fill up like a bathtub.  We don’t see, and we don’t feel, the grasping movement of the water’s fist that holds you and sweeps your footing away along with your belongings.  The grasp that will prevent your crossing through the water and escaping to higher ground.

            And even if you make it to the bank, will you have the energy and strength to climb up it?  To race away like a salamander from a cave, seeking to escape the water inside and climbing over all things living and dead?

            That is part of the horror you don’t feel when you just see the photos.  The fear of the residents unable to escape.  Homeowners, left to the ravages of the increasing river’s anger, seeking to reach the top of their rooflines, if they were able to reach it in safety.

            And if you have ever been swept out of a canoe in a strongly flowing stream, you will know.  You cannot swim out of it.  You cannot cross over to the side.  Maybe you can right yourself to point your feet downstream, for you know that you are going to become part of the timber riding down along with you.  And the trees that are now forming the twisted barrier of limbs before you, are what you will next be slammed into, what will catch you and press you into the raging water to be further battered by the flow.

            Do you drive yourself down in the water, hoping to sink under the wooded obstruction?  Your only hope, in that lightning-fast moment of thought, is to be able to resurface like tumbling timber on the other side, struggling to right yourself and gasping for air as you are bobbing along.  Terrors not shown in the floodwater photos.

            In your home, both mobile and constructed, you sleep in the night as you have slept many nights before.  Then the railroad sound becomes louder, quickly rising along with the water.  The crest of a violent flood slams into your home like a massive herd of buffalo.  They are collapsing against your walls, their horns of now iron-like water lifting your home up off its foundation with each surging blow.

            Then your house, now on its side, collapses in and is crushed against trees, cars and other homes swept up in the carnage, only to abruptly slam-stop against bridge abutments and tree bank obstructions.  And you are inside, trapped and impaled and submerged.

            So much of this terrible, violent tragedy occurred along Troublesome Creek in Knott and Breathitt Counties.  Those that went before us and named this valley’s drainage must have known what was coming to those of us who came later.  Such sadness.

With difficulty, mostly crawling on all of my extremities, I made it back up to the Frozen Creek road with its recent floodwater covering it, having drained downward.  Driving over the high upper bridge, I dropped down to the road that runs on the old railroad bed and crossed the river on the old steel truss bridge that once carried the locomotive.  It was intact, but I was fearful of what I might find on the other side in the small community of Frozen.

            Thankfully, what I saw survived, with homes higher up on the wide slope side.  But the river had swollen up in here, at places reaching the road and “peeling off” layers of accumulated asphalt.

            I wonder if the Corps of Engineers “cut-through” across the backbone of Cy Bend was enough to more quickly shunt the Kentucky River floodwaters downstream, providing some relief to the communities upstream.  Perhaps even providing Jackson some additional relief.

            The road to Wolverine continued to show high water muds.  I saw the first pile of flood debris piled up out in front of a home.  Flooring, furniture, rugs, and wall board.  A sight that became much more frequent as I headed farther into the mountains.

            The lower fields of soybeans looked like a mud-covered, burnt-over zone.  The fields of taller, bent-over corn seeming to point the way if you were chasing the water.

            In some places, another route of road degradation occurs.  The floodwaters coming down a steep slope adjacent to the pavement, soon block the under-road culvert.  A small lake ponds up behind the road and spreads out and spills over the asphalt in a rippling sheet-like fashion.  Soon the waters erode a wide swath of the opposite edge of pavement and the embankment below it.  As the flows become more vigorous and the soil more mobile, that asphalt edge becomes undercut with the resulting collapse of that half of the road.

            I saw many such road “cave-ins.”  Fortunately, the Road and Highway Departments had marked them with orange plastic barrels and yellow caution tape.  It is frightening to think of one collapsing under your automobile as you attempted crossing while it was still covered with water.

            I decided to come into Jackson from the south, crossing over the “Town Hill” road before the modern highways reached Jackson.  The road was intact, with the exception of some marked edge collapse, and I soon crested over to broad views of the Kentucky River Valley.  The road was lined with kudzu vines shaped like fake planted hedgerows.

            I came into South Jackson under the railroad bridge next to the platform of the old Jackson Railroad Depot.  The water was high here, but most of the homes are higher up on the wide river valley slopes.  I drove a ways in and saw that the rusty old “Kentucky May Coal Company” railroad engine was still in place.  Maybe it was too heavy for the waters to lift.

            On the way back to the bridge, I stopped and walked up to where that old Jackson Railroad Depot once stood.  It was easy to imagine the livelihoods and commerce that once passed through here when Jackson was booming.  I was glad to join them in passing.

            Walking around, I glanced, for the first time, at a barrier wall on the other side of the tracks.  Beautifully intricate stonework, artwork really.  I wonder if it was constructed by the Italian stone masons brought in by the railroad company.  They would go on to make Whitesburg famous for their stone re-buildings!

            I crossed the river into Jackson, proper.  And after those devastating floods, it offered a tale of two cities!

            Here, I think, the great cut-through and rerouting of the Kentucky River aided in its flood relief purpose.  The four miles of meander that was cut off at Jackson creating Pan Bowl Lake, was spared from the most severe effects of the flooding.

            And, likewise, the City of Jackson, which has much of its buildings on slopes and ridges, was variably impacted.  The higher regions around the Courthouse, College Campus, and even the painted log building that you see when entering town, were spared.  The lower areas around the high school and homes down low were flooded.  From the air, roofs looked like floating algae in a sea of fresh water.

            When I got there, the water was gone, but its soakings remained piled up high like new mountain ridges, in rows before homes that lost everything inside.

            But like everywhere, when I went in these darkly impacted mountains, everybody was at it, helping each other, bringing in food and water, borrowing heavy equipment, and getting out the ruined with the immediate goal of returning.  These mountain people have long been trained to be self-sufficient and they quickly come together as one community to face down tragedy.

            Back before the South Jackson Bridge, I was driving along Broadway Street, recently a flooded, “submarine” canyon.  Broadway becomes Quicksand Road upriver, and I continued along what was recently underwater.

            Quicksand Creek is a long and windy drainage.  It is big and wide and draws its sustenance from an amazingly deep and tight topography.  From the community of Quicksand just upriver from Jackson, one can drive up and along that creek, swing back over the mountain divide, and climb down to the upstream forks that form Troublesome Creek at Hindman.

            I began that journey at the mouth of Quicksand Creek where an office trailer was just hanging onto the bank, having been swept over by the floodwaters when Quicksand Creek became a river never intending to remain in the banks of its otherwise sleepy creek nature.  The creek-turned-river-turned-lake swept up against all before it and swept all of that away.

            Highway 30 begins the ride up Quicksand Creek proper.  The valley is initially wider, and the homes more spread out and upslope than those found on Troublesome Creek below Hindman.  So, the violence of tumbling water had a greater area within which to expend its anger.  Where tributaries entered into its body, the destruction was greater.  With multiple inches of flowing, rolling water, sliding continuously down from the ridge slopes higher, no area was spared, not even those outside of the rising creek waters.

            At Rousseau, the wet school’s contents were being dragged into an outside pile.  At Gauge, with its solitary building set out in a lonely, wet field, I turn off Highway 30 to follow Quicksand Creek, now turning south.  The elevation is higher here, and the pavement is still good, but the new automobile that stands upright against a tree like a modern menhir, testifies to the fragility of human creation when facing the power of nature.

            Then at Lambric, at the Knott County line, I turn off the paved road to follow the creek up a wide gravel road.

            The gravel still looks good, but with much appreciation I note that the Highway Department has gotten right on it, filling in spots where the bank washed in or where floods cut a new route against the road’s intended direction.

            I am on Quicksand Creek Road, and its low point is at the junction of Alum Cave Creek, where a small lane crosses Quicksand Creek to the Clemons Cemetery somewhere over there.  That’s where I met the highway trucks clearing the road, digging out the culverts, and redirecting the water still discharging so strongly from the forest soil above.  They were reopening the culvert and retraining the water to course under the road and not over it.  I soon came to pavement at Highway 1098, the road that had come directly up the South Fork of Quicksand Creek and crested over past the “Elk Park” to its main stem here.

            The creek is still big, astonishingly large considering how far in we are.  To Decoy and beyond, we follow the creek farther.  At Elmrock, we reach the Forks of Quicksand Creek, proper.  We will take the Patten Fork up, past the “Mine-Made Adventure Park,” under Highway 80, and over to Leburn on the Left Fork of Troublesome Creek.  The flood damage there is overwhelming and everywhere.

            Downstream into Hindman, the destruction keeps on increasing until finally both Forks forming the creek join forces and blast through the city like Apocalyptic Horsemen.  And now, the violence of Troublesome Creek is unabated!

            I often look at the junction of two creeks with appreciation for the life-giving sustenance they bring forward.  My imagination pictures the landforms from which they deliver.  But today, as I stand at the old bridge behind town, I look at the mouths of these two creeks forming Troublesome and see only the giant, devouring worms of Arrakis, creating dune deserts of sand in their passing.

            The creek looks so mild now, a week after wrecking homes and habitations.  One week after the deluge, the creek water is eerily green, seeming as a slime sheen indistinguishably from the green grass slopes and washed clean bank bushes.  A flat stream rock is exposed to the sun, its muddy flood covering, drying to grey, then flakey brown.

            A large Spiney Softshell Turtle [Apalone spinifera] is calmly basking on a rock down there.  Its round and flat leather-like shell looking more like the hue of the water.  It cools its front legs within as though casually bathing.  Its snout tapers like a snorkel and, looking up, its face looks to me like a Babylon 5 “Vorlon.”  I wonder where it hid during the deluge, or if it, too, had been rolled far away from its home.  I also wonder how long she has lived with these people [the large ones are female]. It is surprising to think that these turtles can live longer than 50 years.

            I can see beyond that the Hindman Settlement School Administration Building has been flooded and cars in its lower lot, swept together.  The school’s suspension bridge remains defiant, however, linking farther away regions of its campus.  The school has become a refuge, providing “water, meals and supplies,” a “cooling center,” and “hot meals starting at 12:30 PM.”

            But as I turn to look downstream, I see the more complete toll exacted by this violent flow.  Much of downtown Hindman is nestled in at this creek junction and suffered mightily as the waters came together.  And its famous concentration of Appalachian Culture suffered the most.

            Downtown Hindman boasts of its artistic endeavors in paintings drawn on the walls of its buildings.  A Blacksmith, a Farrier, and a Quiltmaker.  A Mandolin Player, a Basketmaker, a Painter, and a Potter [some painted by Channing Everidge in 2013].  All were up high and survive to continue to sing out the high arts in this heart of the mountains.

            Lacy Hale’s 2010 mural of Ray Slone [Fiddler], Aunt Cord Ritchie [Basket Weaver], Albert Stewart [Poet], Uncle Ed Thomas [Dulcimer Maker], Verna Mae Slone [Author, Quilter, Doll Maker], Jethro Amburgey [Dulcimer Maker], James Still [Poet, Novelist Folklorist], Art Stamper [Fiddler] also remains intact, speaking to the strength of the creative arts in these meaningful people.

            The mural is painted on the side of the Appalachian Artisan Center’s, “Wood Studios,” a center for the Artisan Incubator Business Program, and which houses the Luthiery School.  Its big, long glass window is gone, blown out by the surging waters that reached inside.  That twirling water snatched up historic instruments, coating them with mud and spinning them up in a swirling washing machine fashion, sweeping them out in broken pieces into the street that had become a river.  Some of the instruments that were left swelled up and burst out their wooden seams in sorrow.

            Next door, two banjos hang high from behind a still intact window, reminding us of the quality and persistence of these creative people.

            Plywood now closes the great broken glass window of the Artisan Center.  On the wood, messages of hope are speaking.  “We will be back.”  “God will make a way.”  “Music heals.”

            Uptown the buildings suffered even more.  Lines of piles of flood-soaked debris had been stripped out from within the buildings.  So much damaged material that you can’t walk on the sidewalk adjacent to the Appalachian Artisan Center studios.  My wife had a photography exhibit there, working with Malcolm Wilson.  I peeked inside one of the few remaining windows.  The life-sized elk sculpture ridden by James Still poetry was gone.

            Good.  They saved it!

            No, they didn’t.

            It was sucked out, along with the invaluable mandolin and dulcimer collection, and spirited away through the now-absent window.  I have seen a social media picture of the James Still Elk Model headed downstream and riding the water in the rough turbulence of a wild river’s stampede.  And that river, which had once been called Troublesome Creek, was only going to become more violent along the “Arthur ‘Art’ Stamper Highway.”  Bridges broken, cars turned over, building contents piled outside.

            Hindman is important.  The destruction that I saw is heart-breaking.  And that destruction only increased in violence, running down through the Troublesome Creek valley.

            As the river roared downstream, it must have gathered in even more strength.  Broken house foundations, with the houses gone to pieces somewhere downstream.  Cars everywhere swept over.  Homes displaced with sections crushed.  Houses completely gone, with only foundations outlining a once-home.

            Troublesome Creek was a most violent expression of the terror unleashed by the deluge.  It is horrible to be so helpless in the face of the anger of nature so acting.  At Dwarf, I left the site of such tragedy to ride up over the ridge to Hazard, where the hilly part of that community seemed to be spared from the worst of it.

            I was headed to Whitesburg, which had been so severely struck, but I wanted to ride along the North Fork of the river through Blackey, Roxana, and the smaller communities upriver.  They were all impacted, as evidenced by the debris piles outside homes and in the river.  In Blackey, I saw piles of church pews.  And the destruction became more vigorous, the closer I came to Whitesburg.

            Whitesburg, the county seat of Letcher, lies along a sinuous series of meanders of the North Fork of the Kentucky River.  The original town was located on a hill within one of the river’s meanders.  The Courthouse, Library, offices, and restaurants are generally located upslope on Main Street and were mostly spared from the flooding caused by the river down low.  But at the foot of Main Street, the flooding was extensive and extended as one body around the meanders to the Appalshop Center and the residential areas within the “Upper Bottom.”  The aerial views of this flooded, flowing lake are stunning in the extent of the coverage, but you won’t hear the emergency sirens that were then sounding in the photos.

            Coming into town from the west, I could see the tell-tale signs of piled-high belongings that marked the extent of flooding at the bottom of Main Street.  Now, one week after the torrential flows of the deluge, the river was again hiding in its bucolic, quiet waters, silently sliding, almost sleeping, in the bottom of its stream course bed slippers.  I turned back to look at the four large pieces of ceramic and metal building art overlooking the river.  Still there, staring down at all comers.

            I walk across the bridge to an Arcade wiped out in the flooding.  The building is adjacent to the river.  It will take much work to make this place and those games operational again.  I think it was a worthy community attraction for young people walking downtown.

            Today, the operators are giving away hot dogs to anyone who is still hungry.  They were getting ready to show free movies on the sidewalk in the evening.  I asked if they sold shirts and, from the trunk of their car, I bought several.  Give a wave and some love to those who wear the logo of the “Atomic Raid Arcade.”  [I also contributed to the “Rebuild Atomic Raid Arcade” GoFundMe Campaign!]

            Down East Main Street and over to Madison Street, Appalshop, also located near the river, was severely impacted.  The first-floor auditorium and radio station were flooded with mud, and their archives severely impacted.  Giant ventilators were sucking out moisture from the front door as I drove by.

            I can’t imagine the loss of homeowners without flood insurance, or the difficulty of addressing such insurance coverage in areas so completely impacted.  I hope the next time I’m in Eastern Kentucky, Appalshop’s radio station, WMMT, is back on the air.  For almost 50 years, Appalshop has sung the praises and addressed the agonies of these mountain people.  I want to hear their voices again.

            Moving upstream along Jenkins Road, I reach the beautiful Texas Avenue Bridge [Italian Stone Masons].  It leads to the “Upper Bottom,” an important residential area in the community.  The waters had retreated when I returned there, but the damage was evident in the piles of debris collected before each residence.  I can only imagine how terrifying it was to find yourself suddenly lake-locked in by torrents of surging water.  Water that came sweeping down the tighter upstream ridge constrictions through the coal towns built tightly in along the river.

            It was getting dark, but I was determined to run through the coal company towns that had been built along the Upper North Fork more than 100 years ago.  The coal companies had moved out long ago, but the houses remain and are still homes to many of the families raised there.  I turned in at Mayking, which was so severely flooded that residents were rescued in kayaks.  I was to follow the North Fork along the old road to Jenkins.

            The properties adjacent to the river were swamped.  Entire contents of homes were piled out up front, air conditioners on top.  I turned in on the Sergent Loop.  Some cars were swept into the river.  Other cars were lifted by the water and slammed down on the roof of their neighbor.  Concrete parking areas were undercut and were now hanging in the air like slices of pizza.  Giant trees and roots were tangled up and blocking the course of the river.  New rootlets were already latching onto the mud, feeding the green growth still growing above.  A new future after rearrangement by the deluge.

            The community of Millstone was next, with many homes lining the junction of the North Fork of the Kentucky River and Millstone Creek.  The destruction here was awful.  Everything was strewn about, buildings collapsed, cars toppled and pushed around.  In one indication of the depth of the flooding, a pontoon boat had been lifted and left on the top of an automobile that itself was resting on a trailer.

            At Kona, the Martha Jane Potter Elementary School sits at the junction of Boone Creek and the North Fork of the Kentucky River.  Everything that was inside, all the desks and chairs, is now stacked outside.

            I have often looked at that junction and wondered if Boone Fork didn’t contribute more liquid. This deluge argues for that proposition, for the damage upstream on Boone Fork was so much more severe.  I continued on Route 805 as it followed up Boone Fork.

            Seco was built in 1915 by the Southeast Coal Company.  The three-story, frame headquarters building proudly identifies its history.  It is now home to the Highland Winery and Inn.  Seco was hit hard, and the winery’s rugs were draped over the porch bannisters drying.  I hope its “16 Luxurious Units” reopen soon where I can again “Enjoy a Taste of History.”  Water and food had been placed outside for the community.  The houses there were swamped and the Post Office, now just a collection point for packages of broken river limbs.

            In my travels, I had often stopped at the “Junction Drive-In” at Neon Junction.  The “Junction Burger” served there is delicious.  I had hoped the Drive-In had survived the deluge and was still serving the local community in this time of need.

            It had not.  When I arrived, I found its doors open and all of the wall plasterboard removed and piled out in front of it.  Only the wall timbers and a water heater remained inside.  The Drive-In lays in the junction of the Potter Fork and Wright Fork creeks [forming Boone Fork Creek of the North Fork of the Kentucky River]and had received the overwhelming floodwaters that had crushed Fleming-Neon upstream.

            That’s where I went next but it was now nearly dark and the road rough going.  Neon caught some of the worst of it, receiving the flow from Hemphill on Yonts Fork as well as the headwaters of Wright Fork at McRoberts.

            The road to Neon constricts where the Highway Department is working.  Flagmen direct traffic around the clearing of the creek course.  The water covered cars here, lifting some onto home porches.  Neon is one giant pile of rubble.  The sign of the old Neon Theater still proudly thrusts out its jaw in defiance of nature’s punches.  But the belly blows were too much.  Below is an open gap with interior contents brought out to the sidewalks and blocked off with caution tape.  Much more debris has been swept into a vacant lot that once strung outdoor lights and parasols as art.

            Farther up, the old Dawahare’s double front, solid brick storefront, from which the famous Kentucky department store sprouted, is also taped off, one of its big picture windows blown in.  The newer bank across the street is higher on the hill.  Did the water make it into the lobby?

            It was almost dark when I turned and began my return home.  I passed another store in Neon, broken and collapsing into the creek.  Had it been swept downstream too?

            I must return.

 

  © 2022 by Van Stockum Jr., All Rights Reserved

 

About Author

Ronald R. Van Stockum, Jr. is a lawyer, teacher, biologist, writer, guitarist, and recently an actor living on his family's old farm in Shelbyville, Kentucky. He has a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Santa Clara University, and a Masters and PhD. in Biology from the University of Louisville. He also has his Juris Doctorate in Law from the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law. He practices law from offices in Shelbyville, Kentucky concentrating his legal practice in environmental law. His biologic research is in historical phytogeography. Dr. Van Stockum, Jr. has published numerous books, articles, and short stories in the areas of law, science, and creative writing. Eighteen of his titles are available on Amazon in hardback, softback, and Kindle formats.

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