Breathitt County residents struggle to recover from floods

amead@herald-leader.comMay 13, 2009 

JACKSON — Beatrice and Matt Gross were sitting in a swing on the front porch of their mobile home Tuesday, waiting on ... something.

They had heard that someone from the Federal Emergency Management Administration might come by. Beatrice wanted to show them the damage to her home of 18 years, the one they had been installing new paneling in Friday, before the flood came.

Like 300 to 400 other people in Breathitt County, she figured that her home was destroyed by the Saturday morning flash flood.

And she wondered what to do about the two freezers full of meat. There had been no electricity since the water came up, but she doesn't want to throw it out if the people from the government need to see it to assess damage.

As the Grosses sat on the porch, with a now-tame Cane Creek behind them and Ky. 30 west passing close to their small front yard, the wreckage was all around. To their left was a trailer pushed up against a corner of theirs at a crazy angle. To their right, four trailers were mashed against a telephone pole. It was difficult for a visitor to tell that there were four in the tangle of aluminum, but Beatrice knew that her daughter had owned two of them, and she knew who the others belonged to.

And she had seen them, just as it was getting light last Saturday morning, being lifted by the power of a raging Cane Creek.

"It was taking those trailers and turning them around like they were toys," she said.

Beatrice already knew the creek could be dangerous. He father drowned in it April 8, 1957, just about a mile upstream, when he came home after a late shift in a coal mine and tried get across to his home.

A drive along Ky. 30 on Tuesday showed what a quiet creek can do when the clouds open and drop far too much rain far too fast.

The banks of the creek still are littered with large pieces of aluminum, children's toys, trash cans, riding lawn mowers and twisted and torn lumber. At one curve in the road near the Grosses, a highway guard rail served as a strainer, catching much of the debris.

The Grosses' trailer was one of the few in their neighborhood that wasn't moved by the floodwaters. That's because Matt sank treated 8-by-8 timbers into concrete to anchor it. But the water line is visible along the outside wall about 5 feet off the ground.

Beatrice, 61, and Matt, 51, said the paneling was one of the last stages of a $15,000 remodeling of their home. Now it's all ruined, along with thousands of dollars worth of movies they had bought for their son, Matt Jr., and, well, everything.

"That insulation will never dry," Matt said. "It will just get that black mold in it."

The Grosses fled when the creek started rising for the second time Saturday morning. They went to a friend's house on top of the hill on the other side of the road.

From there, they could hear screaming and see the flashlights from two of their neighbors, who were trapped on the roof of their trailer.

"You see stuff like this on TV, but when you're up on the hillside looking down and hearing people screaming, it's a whole 'nother thing," Beatrice said.

The neighbors were rescued, she said, by firefighters who used Matt's little wooden jonboat.

"I can't never sell that boat now," she said. "It's a lifesaver."

Beatrice is thankful for the bad things that didn't happen. No one was killed in the flooding that Chris Fraley, the county's emergency management director, said is the worst in living memory.

She is thankful that one of her brother's two dogs survived, although his trailer was broken "into 1,000 pieces."

Breathitt County was not one of several counties that Gov. Steve Beshear visited in a helicopter tour of tornado and flood damage Tuesday. But Fraley said that he and Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo have been in frequent contact with county officials, and they are "giving us anything we asked for."

Road crews were busy clearing mudslides Tuesday, and electrical workers had power restored to nearly everyone. But it will take months to repair all the damaged roads, Fraley said, and it could take four days before federal help arrives.

The Grosses said they want some kind of help from someone. Matt can't work and has drawn a disability check since being hit by a train 25 years ago.

They're staying with friends, as are many of the displaced. But the family that was busy remodeling just before the flash flood came doesn't really have long-term plans now.

"This was everything we had, right here," Beatrice said.

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