Beshear pledges help for storm victims

ralessi@herald-leader.comMay 13, 2009 

MARTIN — In some places in Eastern Kentucky, fresh stains on buildings and mud-encased ball fields have created historic high-water marks in places that hadn't been flooded before.

"What everyone in Eastern Kentucky keeps telling us is that it's worse than the 1977 flood," Gov. Steve Beshear said Tuesday while touring some of the hardest-hit communities.

A long-term effect will be the rewriting of the 100-year flood plan, which governs which structures must have flood insurance and how close to certain waterways buildings may be built.

The most pressing short-term goal, however, remains the cleanup effort.

Local officials, neighbors, volunteers and even a few Pike County jail inmates are digging communities out of mountains of mud.

"People of Eastern Kentucky are tough," Floyd County Magistrate Jackie Edford Owens said. "This is one time we have to be."

Officials are still calculating the total damage from the floods that swallowed entire homes in some places early Saturday, and a tornado that ripped across southern Madison County on Friday night.

Once the total bill surpasses $5.2 million, federal assistance can kick in. Beshear said he expects to be able to formally ask for that federal declaration within the next "couple days." That will allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency to begin reimbursing the state and counties for as much as 75 percent of cleanup and rebuilding costs.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, said he plans to lay the groundwork for such a disaster declaration during a breakfast meeting Wednesday with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Rogers traveled with Beshear for much of the day Tuesday. He said he has been surprised by the destruction, even for a region that has seen its share of nasty floods.

"It's poetic injustice for this type of disaster to strike the poorest county in America," Rogers said while flying by Blackhawk helicopter over Owsley County.

Rebuilding roads will be a big part of the state's costs, said Brig. Gen. John W. Heltzel, director of Kentucky's Department of Emergency Management.

Some secondary roads remained impassible, stranding residents.

"The only way you can really get to them is on foot or by ATV," said Belfry Fire Chief Nee Jackson, who has spent the last two nights delivering food on all-terrain vehicles to residents in Mud Lick hollow. In nearby Toler, crews had to scrape mud into 4-foot-high piles along a road next to Pond Creek.

Near Belfry High School, that same creek ruined a new Little League and recreation park finished last year with $100,000 in coal severance-tax money and $50,000 from Massey Coal. The area where the park was, as well as a stretch of buildings across Ky. 119 from the creek, were flooded for the first time.

Until the state is reimbursed, FEMA won't be able to help pay back homeowners affected by the floods.

One of those homeowners, Ernestine McKinney of McDowell, made her way Tuesday to a makeshift shelter at Graceway Methodist Church outside of Martin in search of clean clothes.

McKinney said she plans to ask FEMA to help cover repairs to her home. It had never flooded before, but this time more than 6 inches of water from Left Beaver Creek ruined floors in three rooms.

Earlier in the day, Beshear traveled through tornado-ravaged southern Madison County, where an F-3 tornado killed two people and seriously injured at least one person in the same storm system Friday night. The tornado damaged 133 homes; as many as 25 will have to be completely rebuilt, Madison County Judge-Executive Kent Clark said.

Ronnie Tussey, standing in what was left of the farmhouse he built in 1978 on his family's farm in Kirksville, told how he and his wife, Margie, barely survived. The tornado ripped apart their home, tossed their cars out of the garage and leveled their three barns and a shed.

They got a one-minute heads-up from the siren on the other side of the hill, which allowed Margie Tussey to retreat to the basement with one of their cats, Charlie. Ronnie Tussey, however, didn't quite make it there before the tornado struck. He hit the deck in the hallway and was protected by a door the tornado had unhinged.

On Tuesday, Beshear pledged the full help of the state to assist those like the Tusseys who are trying to clean up and rebuild.

"Nothing is going to stand in the way of the state stepping up to do everything it can to help our people out," Beshear said. "I've never been so impressed in my life than during my 17 months as governor with the resilience and the strength of Kentuckians."

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