Runnels Branch is a long, winding holler that travels deep into a mountain from the Carr Fork Lake area in Knott County, Kentucky. Usually, the creek is a gentle presence by Sally Smith’s little white house, a source of comfort. But last week, it became something else, something vengeful. It became a flood.
“It was at night. It came late at night,” Smith said.
That night, Troublesome Creek and its tributaries surged up to 12 feet throughout Knott County, a rapid flash flood made possible by the steep hillsides and narrow valleys of the region–places where there’s one way in and one way out. Smith’s house was okay, but many of her neighbors had only moments to scramble for higher ground. Many had been asleep. Smith remembers the terrifying sound of rushing water in the dark.
“We had water on this side,” she said, demonstrating as she walked around her house. “We had water on this side. It was coming through my sister in law’s yard into our yard.”
As the water receded, the devastation became clear: hillsides cleaved off, houses moved from their foundations, cars wedged beneath bridges. The water smelled like gasoline. A corner of Smith’s shed now hangs off a broken hillside. A utility pole that once was on dry land is now standing in the creek. In some places, entire houses washed into the road.
From the main roads it might not look so bad, but up in the hollers, it’s catastrophic.
Almost everybody knows someone who died. Lexington Herald Leader first reported four Knott County children who had been swept away; those were Smith’s niece’s kids.
“You’ve got people who lost sisters, uncles, mothers, cousins,” Smith said. “And the count just keeps going up. You see cars turned over and you wonder, is there somebody in there? You don’t know.”
For days, Smith and her neighbors had no water or power. Past Smith’s house, the road is still so bad people can only get to each other on their ATVs, or just by walking. She regularly checks in on an elderly couple she knows is running out of oxygen for their tanks. She repeatedly calls 911 and waits for them to come.
“Nobody’s checking,” Smith said, despairing. “It’s neighbors checking on neighbors. That’s what we’re doing, is we keep up with each other.”
The Kentucky floods claimed at least 37 lives, and Knott County has claimed the most deaths thus far, at 17 and counting.
Now, the community is picking up the pieces.
First responders overwhelmed
Knott County’s first responders are trying their best to get to people, but local fire departments are all-volunteer and work with small crews. The night of the flood, the volunteers of the Hindman fire department found themselves unable to access their station, with water over the bridge and some firefighters stranded at home or on the road.
When the flooding receded, their station was covered in mud and muck. Trucks had fallen into the creek.
The volunteer firefighters are still trying to respond to calls even while they clean muck from their equipment. They’ve worked medical calls, too. And they all have jobs to get back to. Fire chief Preston Hays is exhausted.
“We’ve all been devastated and overwhelmed, and there’s times where you lay down and don’t get much sleep,” Hays said.
Hays sat at the fire station desk, speaking over the sound of a fan that whirred in the corner. Years of notebooks and documents lay drying on top of ruined tables, and the station’s gear was on the stairs, covered in dried mud. Outside, volunteers sat with bottled water and snacks for anyone who might come by.
“We’re trying to take care of ourselves all while receiving water, trying to get food set up, and take care of everyone in the community,” Hays said.
A few places are still inaccessible, and even though first responders from other counties are helping, Hays says they have their own problems to deal with. With so many places going through so much at the same time, resources are spread thin.
“The phone’s been ringing all day,” he said.
Hays said he’s relied on additional volunteers from the community. When they couldn’t get firemen out to rescue calls, it was ordinary people who stepped up.
“They were the ones doing the work,” he said. As he opened his mouth to add another thought, the phone rang, and Hays apologized before picking it up. As he talked, he scrawled notes in the margins of a whiteboard covered in them.
After the initial round of floods, parts of Knott County have been hit again and again by intermittent rains. The community is overwhelmed, to the point where the county court has suspended operations indefinitely. Beautiful, remote communities with names that sound like poetry — Wolfpen Creek, Deadmare Branch, Pippa Passes, Redfox, Emmalena — have continued to be cut off. Even on the main drag in the county seat of Hindman, many are marooned on one side of the creek until their bridges are fixed.
A community helps itself
As emergency services recover from their losses, volunteers like Havanna Thacker are taking it on themselves to coordinate supply runs. Thacker grew up in Knott County’s Rowdy Hollow, a community she says has always been on the margins, near the county line where it can be hard to find a nearby post office, bank, or doctor, and where roads don’t always get fixed quickly. She lives in Richmond now, but rushed back as soon as she heard about the flood.
“Knott county does not have a lot of resources, as it is, to go around,” Thacker said.
Thacker and her mother, along with other community members, set up shop in the old Carr Creek High School, which closed to students in 1974 but remained open as a community center. After a morning of stacking and inventorying supplies, Thacker rests in a corner of the gym. She’s exhausted. But she feels that if people like her don’t step up, more people could die.
“Sometimes it feels as though there are people who take the heavy load for everyone else,” she said.
In the afternoon, Thacker runs the roads up and down the narrow hollers. When she can’t go any further, she meets someone with an ATV to carry the supplies the last mile or two.
“These are my people,” Thacker said, wiping her forehead. “How are they surviving? But you remember where you’re from. Everybody takes care of each other.”
She’s had highs and lows over the past weeks. She’s met people over and over who lost family, friends, all they had. But she’s also seen people come together to clear roads and make life easier for one another.
“So you can literally drive through and see people with shovels, mattocks, boots, whatever, they had hair pulled back, trying to help people get back on their feet.”
But still, more is needed. Homes need to be fixed, or people need new ones. Even though the National Guard has arrived and FEMA just started to take applications for aid, many people say they’re doubtful they’ll get the assistance they need. Especially as the initial crises die down, and the long haul sets in, Smith wonders if her community will be forgotten. It just feels like they live too far out.
“You know, the only thing I can do is pray,” Smith said. “Because it seems like the government is not really interested in Knott County.”