Northeastern Kentucky counties dig out from flooding

Debbie Jordan helped husband, Tim, left, unload cleaning  supplies from the Red Cross on Friday. Her ex-husband Simon Smith, right, called them Wednesday to warn them of the flood.
Debbie Jordan helped husband, Tim, left, unload cleaning supplies from the Red Cross on Friday. Her ex-husband Simon Smith, right, called them Wednesday to warn them of the flood.

OLIVE HILL — Lonnie Orcutt's mood swung like a pendulum Friday as the community of Emerson in southern Lewis County wondered whether federal help was coming.

Orcutt's grocery store and Emerson's post office washed off its foundation in a flash flood early Wednesday morning. Orcutt, who has owned the store for 15 years, guessed he lost about $75,000, not including the building that now lies in shambles about 100 yards downstream on Grassy Creek.

The state Department for Environmental Protection was overseeing cleanup efforts after two above-ground diesel and kerosene tanks on the property overturned and spilled.

Orcutt fluctuated between frustration at the bureaucracy, weariness from the heat, sadness at the loss of his business, and relief that family members and their homes were safe.

"All told, we're OK and will be OK," Orcutt said.

He said he hadn't decided whether he would rebuild because he's nearing retirement. On Friday, he didn't think so.

State Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, was making the rounds in Lewis County. "We've got to get our numbers up," she said, referring to the $5.2 million in damages that must be reached for a county to be eligible for federal disaster assistance.

Some in the area are still picking up the pieces from a similar flood in May, when Lewis and Carter counties were declared disaster areas. That leaves many wondering whether they will get similar help this time.

Pike County, which was not hit by floods in May, was declared a federal disaster area because of flooding July 17.

Down the road from Orcutt, Debbie Jordan cried over her son's and grandson's lost mobile homes one moment and laughed at the irony the next. Her grandson had been married in the front yard just three weeks before.

Her voice wavered as she told how they were trying to save wedding and baby gifts when the double-wide began to break apart before dawn. Her grandson had to jump to safety and ended up floating across the highway and clinging to a tree limb. She didn't know for hours whether he was alive, Jordan said.

Since then, only pieces of the mobile home have been found.

Jordan said her ex-husband called and woke the family about 2 a.m. Wednesday. She said if he hadn't, they wouldn't be alive.

"The Lord is the one who brought our family through," she said.

Electricity had been restored on Thursday and phone service on Friday afternoon. The family was in search of cleaning supplies and hoping they would be able to sell their land and move Jordan's mobile home, the only one left standing on the lot.

'Screaming and praying'

Unlike flooding in Pike County a week ago, Wednesday's flooding in counties such as Carter, Lewis, and Rowan counties along Interstate 64 happened before dawn, taking residents by surprise.

One woman died as her mobile home washed down Little Sinking Creek near Fultz in Carter County. After dawn-to-dusk searching, rescue workers found Mary Littleton, 72, dead in the Little Sandy River on Saturday.

She was one of 12 children who grew up on the creek, and all but two homes along the creek belong to family members.

Littleton's niece Esta Griffith, who was pulling up carpet and sweeping mud out of her two-story brick house upstream from Littleton's place, said she was shocked at the force and speed of the water Wednesday.

She and her husband left the house in the morning to move cars, ATVs and farm equipment to higher ground and became stranded on a rock near their driveway. Their 12-year-old daughter and a friend were alone in the house, Griffith said.

They called six times to wake up the girls, shouting "Sarah, wake up!" over the rush of water into the telephone answering machine.

"It was like standing in the middle of the Ohio River," Griffith said.

"We were screaming and praying and throwing up," and clinging to the rock in the driveway, she said.

Moving the house

The family found out later that Littleton's home had washed away. There was brief hope that she had been able to get to a family member's house, but that hope quickly faded, and the search dragged on for four days.

Grayson fire Chief Greg Felty, who helped search, said Littleton's two nephews talked to her as her mobile home became stuck against a bridge over the creek. They tried to rescue her but had to bail out of their pickup when it began to float. They watched as the home was flipped and crushed by the force of the water, Felty said, and Littleton was lost.

Littleton's brother Tom Hall helped Griffith shovel mud from her home Friday. The family is close, he said, and four of Littleton's five children live nearby. Hall remembers previous floods, though none as high and fast as Wednesday's.

After two floods in 1960, his mother issued an ultimatum: Move the house or get out. The family used a mule to haul their home uphill, room by room, and there it sits today.

After becoming separated from her daughter for a few agonizing hours, Griffith said, she has learned a lesson.

"Next time, leave the trucks, the ATVs, all the material things." Keep the family together, she said, and head straight uphill.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader