Beshear declares state of emergency in 6 counties

bestep@herald-leader.comJune 22, 2011 

Federal officials could begin formally assessing damage Wednesday in areas of Eastern Kentucky damaged by high water after torrential rains this week.

Gov. Steve Beshear on Tuesday declared a state of emergency in six counties hit by flooding on Monday. They are Bell, Knox, Perry, Knott, Breathitt and Lee.

Among other things, the declaration authorized mobilization of Kentucky National Guard troops and equipment to help in flood-damaged areas.

Several Guard members are helping clear debris from roads, Beshear's office said.

"This declaration opens up the pipelines and the purse strings to enable us to get resources to where they are needed, as quickly as possible," Beshear said in a news release.

The designation also was necessary if the state is to seek a presidential disaster declaration. If granted, the declaration would bring federal assistance to deal with the damage in the counties. The state and counties would have to meet certain thresholds in the amount of damage in order to seek such a federal declaration.

Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, could begin work to confirm damage in Knox County on Wednesday, said Jerry Rains, Area 9 manager for the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management.

FEMA officials are set to begin tallying damage in Bell County on Thursday, said Paul Wilson, the county's emergency management director.

Local teams surveyed damage Monday and Tuesday, but federal officials must do their own review in order to justify a presidential disaster declaration, Rains said.

The flooding happened Monday after 6 inches or more of rain in a few hours in some places pushed creeks out of their banks, washing some houses and mobile homes off their foundations and inundating others.

A Knox County man died in the flooding.

High water swept Donnie Joe Pate, 55, from the mobile home he shared with his mother at Kayjay around 4 a.m. Monday.

The flood carried Pate, who couldn't swim, about three-quarters of a mile down the creek, where his body lodged against a bridge, according to family members and a deputy coroner.

Pate's mother, Wilma Ruth Pate Hamilton, 79, was injured when the roiling creek picked up the mobile home and smashed it against a bridge.

Rescuers pulled her from debris lodged against the bridge. She was badly bruised, but was recovering at a hospital in Knox County Tuesday, said her daughter, Barbara Golden.

Donnie Pate received disability payments because of a mental condition and had lived with his mother all his life, said Golden, his younger sister.

Pate, whose father died when he was a teen, had never married and his sister couldn't recall him ever holding a job. He was a quiet man who didn't bother anyone, Golden said.

He had loved playing softball as a younger man, but in later years didn't want to talk to people. Sometimes, he didn't even come out to talk with her when she went to visit, Golden said.

However, he mowed the yard and helped feed his mother, who has a feeding tube because of a bout with cancer several years ago, Golden said.

"Lord, they loved each other," Golden said of her mother and brother.

Early Monday, Pate woke his mother up and told her water was coming into the house, Golden's mother told her.

As they stood in a hallway, Pate opened the back door. High water swept him out of the mobile home and pushed her mother into the living room, then carried the whole structure down the creek.

A resident spotted Pate's body Monday after the floodwater started to recede, but it took several hours to confirm his identity.

Bell, Knox and Perry counties appeared to suffer the worst of the damage from Monday's flooding.

A preliminary count showed that high water destroyed or damaged more than three dozen homes in Knox County.

Officials were still surveying damage in Bell County Tuesday, but it appears about 300 homes suffered damage, said Wilson, the emergency management director.

Most of those homes were in and near Middlesboro, which saw its worst flooding in 20 years or more, officials said.

Wilson said some businesses also were damaged, and two hotels had to close because water got into them.

In Perry County, flooding damaged an estimated 50 to 60 homes and some churches, caused slides and tore up roads and bridges, said Derrick Bowling, the deputy judge-executive.

"It really hit hard," Bowling said.

Much of the damage was in the Bulan and Lost Creek areas, he said.

At Lost Creek, a silt pond designed to catch runoff from a surface coal mine apparently failed, adding to the flooding, Bowling said.

Authorities evacuated eight houses, though six of the families were later able to go back to their homes, he said.

Officials in Knott, Breathitt and Lee counties said most of the damage there was to roads, bridges and culverts.

People whose homes were flooded continued working Tuesday to clean out the thick mud left by the high water and salvage what they could.

Pam Sears, who lives up the street from where Pate's mobile home washed away, said she and her family had moved furniture out of her house, scrubbed and sanitized the floors and walls where the water had reached, and sorted through to see what had to be thrown away.

She was exhausted Tuesday afternoon but thankful her home was intact and her family safe.

"Just making the best of a bad situation," she said. "We'll be okay."

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