The Devastating Floods in Eastern Kentucky
(From of the last chapter in my book entitled, “Surrounding™ the Kentucky River, from its beginnings to the end.”)
The great deluge began the night of Wednesday, July 27, 2022. By the next morning, the rising swamp of floodwater had swept through its sinewy drainageways, bulldozing with water as irate as iron, anything that would obstruct its passage downstream. More rain would be added in the following days. Yet during the onslaught, crews of volunteers poured in with bottled water, food, and every kind of assistance and equipment.
On the following Wednesday, not a week after it began, I managed a 17-hour road trip to assess the state of those areas and the people that I had come to love. I made it as far in as Whitesburg and Fleming-Neon, traveling the routes I had recommended in my book. I saw horror, tragedy, and hope.
But I had not reached McRoberts or taken the road over to Jenkins. And I had heard terrible things about what happened in Chavies and Buckhorn. So, on August 10, 2022, two weeks after the deluge, I traveled to Ashland and, from there, down Highway 23 through Pikeville to Jenkins.
For 15 hours, I traveled back routes into the deep, rich lands of the Kentucky River “Watersheds.” It is a word that today has a much more literal meaning.
What I found was more of that terrible scene, especially at McRoberts and Fleming-Neon, along Grapevine and Eversole Creeks around Chavies, and at Squabble Creek in Buckhorn. This finished my return through such terror. During a time when so many died and yet so many rose up to rescue their neighbor and survive.
Here is what I saw.
The old lake that makes Jenkins so pretty, held. It was full, and when I saw it, easily spilling water. A Georgia Disaster Relief Team was parked right below it. And Paco’s, the Mexican Restaurant at “Tommy Brush Field,” was open for business.
The lake that the deluge had created in the town down below, had washed itself away, but not before soaking the lower reaches of homes and buildings with muddy depositions. Piles of debris were now deposited before the suffering unfortunates living where the deluge marked its passage. And the damage was not just restricted to the storm-created “lake bottoms,” for depths of additional water had careened off the mountains, not like sheets but like boulders, knocking inside the homes built on their lower slope sections.
I traveled next to Dunham along creeks that had savaged its neighbors, some of the water crushing houses in their sides and lifting others off their foundations like toys.
I was worried whether the McRoberts Jenkins Road running over the mountain was open. But I was surprised and pleased to find it in good condition. Since my last visit, large segments had been repaved with asphalt and new white strip borders repainted. Side streams on the steep slopes had filled in their culverts and swept over the road. And it was obvious that trees and muds had to be swept aside. But that had been done and the road [an important way out] cleared.
Not so, when I reached the bottom of the other side of the mountain at McRoberts. There, the culvert bridge leading into town had been torn out by the water. Mud had been everywhere, and the pavement broken. I wonder if any could reach the Jenkins Road during the deluge and escape upward? A truckload of new asphalt had been dumped to allow a low crossing. I did so, turning left onto Tom Biggs Road. The waters had exploded into McRoberts from Bearcamp Creek, Tom Biggs Creek, and the Chopping Branch Creek of Wright Fork. They then blasted their way through the town and community of Fleming-Neon!
In McRoberts, great damage was evident everywhere. Pieces of wooden structures torn about, trucks and cars crushed and overturned. Mud everywhere. All sorts of debris, vegetation, metal and plastic were collected and piled up by the flood at all culvert and bridge crossings. Homes slid back into the watercourse, which had armed itself with chunks of metal strewn about its banks as protective siding.
At one point farther down, a high slope, cleared as a meadow, broke loose from its green root tie-downs, and with gravy-brown, muddy, sludgy soil, slid downward to the creek, its pebble rock matrix now free to rumble.
Even two weeks out, passage was dangerous, with a truck stopping traffic while heavy equipment cleared the waterway. This is the bridge in McRoberts of which so much is written. The one blown apart and carried away early, quickly trapping the McRoberts residents in place.
But it didn’t.
Neighbors immediately jumped to work in the rain and commandeered a nearby piece of heavy excavating equipment. They then went to work fashioning a culvert at the bottom of the creek over a wide, old pipe that had been washed in, blocking the creek further. Scraping up rock, debris and mud, they fashioned a crossing, over that low pipe deep down in the creek bed, to carry water and people to freedom. I pointed the nose of my car down and gently rolled across the one-car-width crossing up the other side.
Then, the devastation just got worse. I was driving through piles of debris in Fleming, left as the floodwaters passed through, and aimed at the multistory, brick buildings at the downtown commercial crossroads of Neon. In 1922, Dawahare began expanding his Kentucky department store empire from here!
The Dawahare sign had already been taken down, but the building was intact where it had operated for much of a century. One giant windowpane had been busted in by the water, or one of the many hard-metal or vegetable-edged torpedoes being driven down before it. Across the road, even the Bank higher up on the hill had been taking water.
The floodwaters had risen high within the constriction of buildings in town, roaring through the streets of Neon. They flowed just beneath the old proud sign of the movie theatre marquee that once drew people to this tiny metropolis. The sign today still announces Neon’s resilience, and a banner just put up in town exclaims that Neon will remain “Strong.”
Farther down at Neon Junction, the “Junction Drive-In” building was further cleaned out, still muddy and naked, but I hope awaiting renovation. I like the owners and their tasty Junction Burger eatings!
The stretch of Boone Fork to Kona and its junction with the North Fork of the Kentucky River was one of the stretches of the river hit the hardest by the flooding. The coal camps built by the old coal companies, lined the tight valleys with houses in lines as straight as the stream course around them. Whitaker, Seco, Kona, Millstone, Thornton, and Sergent all got clobbered, not only by the rapidly rising waters, but by the same rising waters raging forward. An aerial photo of floodwaters almost looks placid compared to the truth of the violent surging destruction breeding underneath them!
Reports had indicated that Chavies and Buckhorn had been severely impacted by the flooding. So, I headed up Highway 15, having already visited the rebuilding efforts in the county seat of Whitesburg.
I did want to stop in Isom, however, an important crossroads along Rockhouse Creek. Their famous rodeo is part of “Isom Days,” which was scheduled for this upcoming Labor Day celebration. Piles of debris lined the streets, but the horse track was being cleaned by heavy machinery. I hope the rodeo still returns!
On Route 7 in Isom, is a well-known IGA Grocery Store, owned and managed by Gwendolyn Christon. It has long been a staple of the community, serving the area for more than 35 years. My wife and I did our shopping there, chatting with the owner at the checkout counter while we stayed at a vacation cabin downstream at Blackey.
The Isom IGA had been swamped by Rockhouse Creek. Six feet of water rising high in the building so as to knock down displays and wasting its food contents. Two weeks later, food boxes, cans, and plastic orange juice containers were piled up on the road beneath its sign. A mountain of ruined sustenance otherwise needed by the community. Large national, cleaning company vans were boxed in at the front of the store. Everything on the inside had been completely removed and cleaning operations were underway. For the good of the community [and those who just visit], I hope it reopens soon!
Grapevine Creek is an extensive drainage system that you cross on Highway 15 reaching Hazard from Jackson. It runs west through tight-sloped valleys to a wide floodplain at Chavies on the North Fork of the Kentucky River. Some of the most terrifying damage was extracted by the constricted floodwaters converging there. I turned west, where Highway 28 begins at its junction with Highway 15.
I immediately saw that new cars had been crushed and rolled over. Bare foundation stones were all that remained of homes washed away. Walls and siding, roof and appliances had been crushed together, wrapped around trees, and piled high like vomit against bridges not constructed to restrain it.
Some lower, but still substantial, concrete bridges were seemingly stomped on and crushed in the middle by surging waters that then cut out the bank around them as a warning.
The worst seemed to collect as a spectacle in a bend in the creek around Charles Maude and Tranquility Lanes. Crushed cars in the creek bed bend, an SUV propped up on its end like a tombstone against a tree. Unnatural monuments marking the passing of a great natural disaster. Everywhere, jammed up and crushed buildings had cascaded down, dumped by the water and collected together.
A school bus lifted high on the bank, its back tires suspended over a scalloped soil bank waiting to accept it. Another crushed concrete bridge with a recent plywood and timber walkway constructed to reach over to those who survived there. And then as Grapevine Creek raced to spill its contents into the open floodplain of the river, it became even faster and even more violent in action.
As I approached the bridge at Chavies, I could see that the gravel Chavies Dunraven Road was blocked by caution-striped taping. I can only imagine how the North Fork rose to become a monster racing down that dirt lane to engulf Chavies.
After crossing the river, Highway 28 climbs over to Buckhorn along Eversole Creek. More astonishing destruction. Houses on teetering concrete foundations all but completely undercut from the swirling waters removing soil from beneath them. A house, its back completely torn off, collapsing back into the creek. A queen-size bed, still with sheets and blankets, sits precariously at the edge of a now-open second story bedroom. A long extension ladder has been set to cross over the creek to the carnage. What did they find when they got there?
Up top on the crest of the ridge separating the Middle Fork of the Kentucky River, the R & F Dairy Bar was still in operation, too high up for sheet flow to dislodge it. I was concerned, however, about the Anchor Dairy Bar down in Buckhorn, where I was now headed in the rain.
As I passed through the Rock Sentinels up top on the ridge, I could see the mist created by the rain forming up in the hills. After this disaster, the fog seemed like some malevolent, ghostly fungus, seeking out newly dead detritus, created by the deluge and now available for digestion. Everything here is connected, even the tragic loss of life, the loss of land resources and the ugly shifting of its surface features.
The Anchor Dairy Bar seemed to have survived intact. Its signature “Buckhorn Mascot” signing wall, with the names of so many customers, was unblemished and still clearly showing my signature and that of Bon Jovi.
Buckhorn got clobbered by the massive flooding of adjacent Squabble Creek. The area had received almost 12 inches of rain. But Buckhorn Lake must have served its function by further restraining flooding upstream on the Middle Fork of the Kentucky River.
The Buckhorn High School, lying low at the Squabble Creek and the river below the dam, looks like it lost everything in it. And I am not surprised that the wonderful Corps of Engineers Campground, just below the dam at the creek junction, is also closed.
The great log church at Buckhorn looks to have survived. Cody’s Corner appears to be a center of relief activities and the H. C. Sparks Kentucky Food Store [“Sparks has it”] did well, being up high. It is getting dark but the Buckhorn Post Office at one end of the building is still shining out life.
Squabble Creek is another story. It must have been terrible down there. That road and the community I have written about so fondly, suffered mightily. Cars and trucks in the creek. People living in RVs and tents. The road breaking and slipping away into the water.
There are some mighty strong people living up on Squabble Creek and throughout the Eastern Kentucky Mountains. It will take such strength to dig out and reach back in. And now it is too dark for me to join them.
Thus ended my second full day revisiting the areas of which I have written and the people that I have come to so fully respect.
Be well, my friends.
© 2022 by Van Stockum Jr., All Rights Reserved