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2 dead, 6 missing in Johnson County after flash flooding

Flooding caused severe damage and left residents missing in Flatgap in Johnson County.
Flooding caused severe damage and left residents missing in Flatgap in Johnson County.

FLATGAP — Two people were confirmed dead and six others were missing Tuesday following flash flooding in Johnson County on Monday that destroyed dozens of homes in the Flatgap community — and more storms rolled across the state Tuesday night.

After 4 inches of rain in about an hour Monday, flooding occurred along Big Mudlick Creek, according to police and other officials. Six inches of rain fell on Johnson County on Monday, more than anywhere else in Kentucky, according to Shawn Harley, meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service in Jackson.

In all, emergency workers estimated that 500 Johnson County homes were damaged by the flood and as many as 150 were destroyed.

The body of a woman was found Tuesday afternoon by a resident of the flooded area who went to check on his property, said Kentucky State Police Captain Sean Welch. The woman's body was in debris near a creek, he said.

Coroner J. R. Frisby identified her as Willa Mae Pennington, 74, of Flatgap. Her grandson, who was trying to rescue her, was among the missing. Also, Frisby identified a man who drowned after getting out of a vehicle in fast-moving water Monday night as Herman Eddie May, 56, also of Flatgap.

Search-and-rescue crews, with the assistance of helicopters and seven cadaver dogs, continued to look for six missing people among the piles of debris, downed trees and mud left behind by the rushing water.

"I think it goes without saying, the longer we go without having contact with people ... it doesn't bode well," Welch said.

Initially, the list of the missing was longer, but Welch said some of those who were unaccounted for had been found.

"There is a happy ending" in some cases, he said.

Welch said 15 people were treated at a local hospital for injuries sustained in the flood.

Adding to the misery, many parts of Eastern Kentucky got 1 to 2 more inches of rain in an hour Tuesday night as more strong storms rolled through, causing more flash flooding, said Jane Marie Wix, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Jackson.

In Fleming County, a mobile home on Cherry Grove Road was destroyed and two adults inside had to be dug out by fire department rescuers after high winds Tuesday afternoon, said John Sims Jr., deputy director of emergency management. Sims said two children inside the home had already been able to escape when crews arrived. All four were taken to the hospital with minor injuries, he said.

Monday's flooding in Johnson County destroyed mobile homes and pushed houses off their foundations . Vehicles were pushed into yards by high water; some landed on top of other vehicles and under bridges.

Paintsville-Johnson County Emergency Management Director Gary McClure said 60 homes were destroyed along Ky. 172, primarily in Flatgap.

"There's a tremendous amount of damage," he said.

Gov. Steve Beshear declared a state of emergency, which will provide access to state resources to assist in public safety and recovery efforts. The Kentucky Division of Emergency Management and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are coordinating the efforts.

Josh Hitchcock and his family watched their home float away Monday as they stood on a nearby bridge.

Hitchcock, 18, said that when the water reached the back porch, he and his family decided to flee. From a safe distance, Hitchcock watched the water rise and, eventually, carry the house downstream. Next, his neighbor's house floated into a bridge.

"The rain and the water just happened all of a sudden," Hitchcock said. "It just kept coming up."

The flooding knocked out communication to and from Flatgap, Redbush and Staffordsville, complicating rescue efforts, officials said.

In the storm's aftermath, as many as 150 people searched portions of the county, rescuing some residents from trees that they had climbed to escape the flooding, Johnson County emergency dispatcher Bobby Moore said.

McClure said 42 members of the Kentucky National Guard joined the search.

Kentuckians with family in the area flocked to Johnson County Tuesday in search of relatives, because they weren't able to contact them.

Samantha Johnson said her cousin Scott Free, a musician, was among the missing. The man's father, Kevin Johnson, said he last saw him wading through water with his grandmother -- Willa Mae Pennington whose body was found later. The Associated Press reported Free's last name was Johnson.

Before he was washed away with Pennington, Scott Johnson had already saved his father, his uncle and sister in repeated trips to higher ground, the Associated Press reported. He wedged his nephew into a high tree. The nephew survived.

Relatives were trying to keep hope for Scott alive Tuesday.

"Every one of us is just trying to stand up together as a family," Johnson said. "It is very hard."

Gladys Allen of Magoffin County said she went to the home of her relatives and left a note on the door asking them to contact her as soon as they can. She said the house didn't look damaged, but she feared the worst.

"They could be drowned; I don't know," Allen said. She planned to look at a Red Cross shelter and the houses of other relatives.

School officials and volunteers had come together to set up a relief center at Johnson Central High School in Paintsville. Donations of clothes, water, diapers, cleaning supplies, bedding and even a sack of potatoes poured in through the day.

"It's a prideful county," said Darren Gamble, assistant principal at the school. "We usually come together."

There was also significant flooding in Rowan County on Monday. Judge-Executive Walter "Doc" Blevins said Tuesday afternoon that 120 homes sustained damage.

Rowan County Emergency Management Director Ronnie Day said crews made water rescues from four houses.

Day said citizens should document flood damage, take pictures of their repairs and keep receipts from purchases relating to repairs because federal officials will want to see those documents when the county files for federal assistance.

WKYT-TV Chief Meteorologist Chris Bailey said the weather should be drier over the next several days. However, he said some storms are possible this weekend and early next week.

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