Kentucky flood survivors turn to grim mission: bury the dead

Written by Leah Willingham and Brian Anderson

CHAVEZ, Kentucky (Associated Press) — Angel Campbell should have been sitting in her usual chair in her grandmother’s living room this week, rummaging through her old photo albums and eating her favorite bean soup.

Now the living room is gone, and so is her grandmother.

A week after 82-year-old Nellie Mae Howard died in devastating floods that killed at least 37 people in eastern Kentucky, Campbell couldn’t stop thinking about how she was swept away. She said losing “Mamaha” would plague her for a very long time.

“The way she had to leave this land breaks me,” she said. “It feels very harsh.”

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Eastern Kentucky has been engaged for days in the slow, grim task of recovering and burying the dead. Local funeral homes settled into a steady rhythm of visits and memorials, sometimes in quick succession. The dreary ritual continued as more rain fell, resulting in another flood being seen across the Appalachian Mountains region. People here are preparing for the possibility of another round of misery.

Funeral home workers have had to contend with staggering losses, in communities where families have known each other for generations, and some after losing their homes. They had to continue to operate without electricity or water at times, with many objects being brought into a mobile refrigerator to increase capacity.

Mobile Federal Emergency Management Centers have opened across at least seven counties where people can request funds for immediate needs. A relief fund set up by Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear has begun distributing funds to pay for the funeral expenses of flood victims.

No place in eastern Kentucky has experienced more deaths than Nott County, where 17 people died in historic floods. The local coroner, Corey Watson, knew nearly all of them.

“I was taking people back from scenes that I had known since I was a kid or saw that person grow up,” Watson said. “Difficult.”

Families were torn apart by flood waters. Two husbands and wives died. The coroner said entire families had “perished”. Most of those who died were retired, he said.

Watson said his training taught him how to make himself up, but in such an extreme situation, he wondered, “How do you secure yourself properly when you see so many people dying and there are attempts to save their lives or keep them together? It’s annoying, but we have to go through this.” We have to beat them. We can always keep their memory in our hearts.”

A flood in Pine Top swept through Randall and Rosa Lee Vic’s front door, slashed a huge hole in their back wall and swept them into the dark water. Vic said he only had a split second to talk to her before they took the plunge. Whatever happens, he said, I love you.

Vic was able to cling to a tree for about seven hours before Kevin Patrick and another neighbor beat themselves together with extension cords and ran to save him. They found his wife’s body miles away.

The rest of their house came to rest on the other side of their normally quiet schedule. A neighbor loaned him a pop-up to live in, as soon as he was ready.

“I can’t give back what I had,” Vic said. “I’m going to have to get up and move on. I’ll do it.”

Denver Bates, 76, traveled to check on them Thursday. The Vicks worked in his favour, and they mowed the lawn.

They had four and five cars in their driveway. money. Yards kept clean. “They were having a good life, and God told them who the boss was,” Bates said.

He hugged a family friend, Jade Dollarhide, while he saw what he needed.

“We may not have all the malls, we may not have all these jobs and big factories and everything else, but what we lack in money, you know we are rich in friendship and family,” Dollarhyde said. “This is important.”

For some families, funerals offered their first chance to stop and think about the losses after days of digging.

Campbell’s mother, Patricia Collins, was home with her boyfriend next door to Howard’s home in Chavez, Kentucky, when the storms hit. Collins went to check on her, and went up with her grandmother to the kitchen table, but collapsed in the flowing water.

Collins remained in the water for two hours, wedged between a sofa and a car. The only thing that saved her was a flickering tail light that caught the attention of her neighbors who pulled her to safety. Beaten and bruised, she never saw Howard alive again.

It took nearly five hours to find Howard’s body. Campbell’s brother pulled their grandmother out of the water, checked the pulse and wiped the mud from her face. Then he asked neighbors for a sheet to cover her, and sat with her body for hours.

Both homes are now in ruins, having been moved to plots hundreds of meters from where Howard has lived for half a century.

Campbell said her grandmother was like her second mother. They saw each other or talked on the phone every day. She could still hear her laughing on the other line, or telling her to remember to thank Jesus for all the good in her life. A deeply religious woman was tending her rose garden and thanking God every morning for letting her see another day.

She was the person Campbell would go to most often for advice – she knew exactly what she was going to say.

“I always thought that one day when I said goodbye to her I would still be sitting in my favorite chair and remember all the good times,” she said. “But I can’t do that and it really hurts.”

Almost everything her grandmother and mother owned was lost in the flood. Miraculously, a picture still hangs on one of the walls – a picture of her grandmother and grandfather who passed away 13 years ago.

That photo was displayed next to the white casket at her funeral this week, near a mist of roses placed by a family friend.

Just like the ones in her grandmother’s garden.

Willingham reports from Charleston, that WVAP contributors include national writer Allen J.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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