Six months after flood, Eastern Kentucky struggles to recover

Jeff and Pam Sears aren't opposed to mining, as the sign in their yard indicates, but they have joined a lawsuit against coal some companies.
Jeff and Pam Sears aren't opposed to mining, as the sign in their yard indicates, but they have joined a lawsuit against coal some companies.

KAYJAY — Bonnie Mills had 35 years of memories in her old coal-camp house in Knox County, so she hoped she could make repairs and stay in it after it was damaged by flooding last June.

Mills started clearing away gooey mud the day the water receded and kept at it for weeks while staying in a rented place nearby, but relief officials and others eventually convinced her the house couldn't be fixed.

She used federal disaster aid to buy a new mobile home, 48 feet long by 14 feet wide, and had it set up a few yards from her old house.

The new place is sparsely furnished, and with electric heat it doesn't seem as warm as her old house, where she heated with wood and coal.

"I'm still trying to get used to this place," Mills, 63, said of her new home. "I call it my box."

Six months after flooding damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes in Knox, Bell and other Eastern Kentucky counties on June 20, many people still are trying to recover.

Some people are working on repairs, using federal disaster aid and donated items to put their lives back together. Others moved away because their houses were destroyed or too badly damaged to fix.

Jeff and Pam Sears, who live next to Mills, had to tear out the floor, the subfloor, wallboard and insulation to clear away damaged material, get rid of the smell, and make sure mold didn't take hold in their home.

The muddy water was about 18 inches deep in their home during the flood.

They powdered their front yard with lime to smother the stench of the mud deposited by the flood, and then, with the help of volunteers, shoveled the mess into a pile to be hauled away.

The couple used their savings to buy building materials and a new heating and cooling system. Jeff Sears took off work for five weeks to do repairs, and has continued working on the house nearly every weekend since.

They just finished installing insulation under the floor two weeks ago, and still need to finish work on the kitchen, laundry room and a bedroom.

"We're still in the process, but we're a lot better off," Pam Sears said. "Compared to six months ago, we're 110 percent better."

The flooding happened after six inches or more of rain fell during a few hours in some spots.

President Barack Obama issued a disaster declaration covering Bell, Knox, Perry, Breathitt, Knott, Lee and Magoffin counties.

At Kayjay, a former coal camp in the mountainous southern part of Knox County, floodwater funneled down narrow hollows and pushed creeks far out of their banks, washing several homes off their foundations.

Residents in Knox and Bell counties have alleged in lawsuits that improper surface mining and reclamation — such as failing to maintain ponds designed to catch water running off mined areas — caused or worsened the flooding.

The coal companies involved have denied causing or contributing to the flooding.

People recounted how the water came up quickly in the middle of the night at Kayjay, trapping some in their homes.

Mills, who called for help to no avail, rode out the flood perched on the back of her couch with her Jack Russell terrier, Corky, on her shoulder.

Jeff and Pam Sears, their house popping and cracking, could hear their neighbors across the road begging for help, but they couldn't get to them.

"It was terrifying," Jeff Sears said of the flood.

More homes were affected in neighboring Bell County, but the only death in the June 20 flood occurred at Kayjay.

Donnie Joe Pate, 55, died after swift water swept him from a mobile home where he lived with his mother.

The water picked up the trailer and smashed it against a bridge, injuring Pate's mother, Wilma Ruth Pate Hamilton, who was 79 at the time.

The corner lot where they lived has been cleared.

There are other signs of recovery in the community. Part of Ky. 225 has been resurfaced, and culverts wrecked by the flood have been replaced.

Crews have cleared away wrecked homes and debris.

There is more work to be done, however, and it's obvious the flood left a hole in the community.

Several people couldn't find other places to live in Kayjay or didn't want to stay because they feared another flood.

"It was scary that morning," said Carolyn Cox, 55, who moved to an apartment in Barbourville after her mobile home at Kayjay was badly damaged in the flood.

Pamela Jones, 51, also moved out of the community, partly out of fear of another flood.

"I have nightmares," Jones said. "It still affects everyone, I think."

Pam Sears said she sometimes gets scared if it rains at night, and she goes out to check the level of the creek near her house.

She and her husband miss their neighbors, and miss having their son, daughter-in-law and two granddaughters living across the road. The flood destroyed their son's mobile home, and he moved closer to Barbourville.

"It's just not the same, but you have to move forward," she said.

Still, Sears said she was thankful to have survived the flood and for the help she's received from the federal government, neighbors and volunteers.

"We were blessed that we made it through it," she said.