Kentucky begins to dry out and clean up after ‘heartbreaking’ flood

Published 1:59 pm Sunday, March 7, 2021

Standing in the gooey, dank-smelling muck coating the floor of her mobile home in Beattyville, Cindy Spencer considered how she would describe the experience of being flooded out, of losing keepsakes her kids made in school, of having to dig through the soggy debris of her life to salvage some clothes.

“Only words I can come up with is heartbreaking and devastating,” said Spencer, 43. “You’re hopeless. You don’t even know where to turn.”

Spencer was among dozens of people displaced from their homes in Lee County early Monday when heavy rains swelled the Kentucky River to levels not seen in decades and sent brown water surging into downtown Beattyville.

Lee County Judge-Executive Chuck Caudill Jr. said the water reached a depth of six to seven feet in town.

The flood inundated at least 20 businesses in town and numerous homes in Beattyville and the county.

“It’s the worst in anybody’s memory,” Caudill said of the flood.

Electricity was still out in downtown Beattyville Wednesday, but business owners and their employees, as well as residents, throughout the town of about 1,200 were starting the daunting jobs of figuring out what could be saved and cleaning up.

Amid the hum of generators and the growl of equipment scooping mud from streets, people used brooms and squeegees to push mud out of businesses onto the sidewalk, then hosed it into the street.

They put items that might be salvageable, such as chairs, on the sidewalk to dry, carried items that couldn’t be saved to dumpsters set up on Main Street, and figured out what it would take to get back in business.

At the Kentucky Farm Bureau insurance office, agency manager Robbie McKinney and his wife, Cheryl, along with a team that came from the Louisville office to help, carried out equipment with the plan to set up an office in temporary space in town.

McKinney said floodwater hadn’t gotten into the building he used since 1957.

He estimated it will take three to four months to do repairs and get back in the office on Main Street.

“You just tear everything out to the studs” and rebuild, he said.

Debbie Dunaway, owner of Beattyville Florist and Gift, and her husband, Tracy Dunaway, and James Treadway were beginning clean-up at the store.

Dunaway had put vases and other items on shelves because of the potential for flooding, but the water got deeper than she thought it would, knocking over shelves and ruining her stock.

She didn’t know yet Wednesday if the flood destroyed the big cooler where she kept flowers, but it was clear the water had done a lot of damage.

“We’ve got a big loss,” Dunaway said. “It’s just something we’ve never seen in our life.”

Dunaway said the mess was discouraging, but she and other business owners don’t have a choice about rebuilding.

“We have to work, so we have to do it,” she said.

At Los Two Brothers, a Mexican restaurant, workers were cleaning equipment in the parking lot.

Owner Jessica Hernandez said it was raining when she was at the restaurant Sunday during lunch, but everything was fine. Less than 24 hours later, booths and chairs were floating in the dining room.

“It’s amazing how fast you can go from having everything together to being covered in water,” she said.

Several people said the floodwater rose quickly early Monday, leaving little time to move cars or collect many belongings before they had to leave.

Jonah Lucas lost several pieces of equipment he needs to run his business, H&H Tire, as well as three cars.

Like many others, he didn’t have flood insurance because it was too expensive for his small business. He’d been in business 17 years and the water had never gotten into his business, so he thought it never would.

“But I was wrong,” he said. “I guess I know what it means to live in a floodplain now.”

Lucas said he’ll buy back equipment as he is able and get his business going — “eventually.”

Spencer said she was home about 3 a.m. Monday when police came to her house to say she should leave.

The water was coming quickly as she and her daughter, Olivia Lutes, grabbed some clothes and left for a friend’s house, riding out of the water on a fire-department vehicle.

Spencer couldn’t take her Chevrolet Cavalier. The flood ruined it as well, creating a worry about how to get to her job at an apparel factory.

“This is bad,” Spencer said.

Firefighters and other volunteers used a dump truck and Humvees to take people out of the mobile home park, said Tyler Phillips, who is the circuit clerk but also a captain with Lee County Search & Rescue.

Caudill said he was in “awe” of firefighters, rescue-squad members and other volunteers who waded into the flood to help people from their homes.

As Spencer figured out what she could salvage on Wednesday, she could feel the floor of her trailer buckling.

Spencer said it won’t be safe to stay in the mobile home because of the floor and the likelihood mold will grow, but that there aren’t many other places to rent in the county. She said she might have to move to another county.

Peyton Henry, 21, was at home in Beattyville with her fiancee and 4-month-old baby on Sunday when her landlord called and told her that she and her family should “take what you can” and get out.

At first, Henry didn’t think much of it, she said. She’s lived in the house since 2019 and seen several rains that would cause water to stand in the yard, but never major flooding.

But about 30 minutes later she said she looked outside and saw her dog’s house floating down the driveway.

Henry called her father to help them get what they could out of the house, but from the moment the water started rising they had about 10 minutes to grab some essentials, move their vehicles to higher ground and get out, she said.

After they evacuated, a family friend was able to get close enough to Henry’s house to see through a window that the water level inside the home was as high as it was outside, and items were floating.

The work of assessing the damage was underway Wednesday, but Caudill and Jon Allen, the county emergency manager, said some people who had to leave their homes haven’t yet been able to return.

That means it will take awhile to get information on damages, but it’s clear the flood was historic, officials said.

“This is a catastrophic event,” Allen said.

Churches and individuals donated food, water, clothing and cleaning supplies at a community center Wednesday.

Caudill said people interested in making donations for flood relief could call 606-560-0721, and the Downtown Beattyville Alliance had set up a fundraising page to help small businesses.

The county was planning a food distribution Thursday, and had bottled water available. Most of the county was under a boil-water advisory.

Marcia Thomas, an agent at Peoples Insurance, said the water got 61 inches deep in her office downtown by the courthouse. The high-water mark was easy to see on the wall.

On Wednesday, she and another agent, Tasha Cundiff, and Cundiff’s husband Eddie were carrying ruined items out of the office to throw away — computers, a refrigerator, coffee pots, everything.

“It’s just nasty, mucky, yucky,” Thomas said of the mess.

But like others, Thomas said the flood won’t keep Beattyville down.

“We’re gonna keep our chins up and work through it,” she said.