Tuesday, March 19, 2002

Floods strike eastern Kentucky

By Roger Alford
The Associated Press

        HARLAN — Some 250 homes along the Cumberland River were damaged in what residents said Monday was some of the worst flooding in southeastern Kentucky in 25 years.

        Authorities ordered evacuations in communities along the upper Cumberland, where rooftops could be seen protruding from the murky water in several locations.

        No deaths or injuries were reported.

        “The water came up so fast that we didn't have time to save anything from our homes,” said Kimberly Evans, who was forced from her home at Dayhoit. “All we can do now is wait until we can get back in and see what we can salvage.”

        Tim Rader, emergency management director in Bell County, said the flooding was the worst since 1977, when Pineville was covered by 15 feet of water.

        “To see it is to believe it” said Bobby Lewis Jr. of Cumberland. “We have some areas flooded that have never been under water before.”

        Dayhoit residents stood on the banks of the Cumberland watching the water engulf their homes. One, Rick Davis, said the fire department came through evacuating people about 1:30 a.m. EST Monday.

        “We left long before that,” he said. At midday, the water lapped at the window sills of his yellow wood-frame house.

        Another Harlan County family escaped serious injury when a mudslide sent their trailer over a 50-foot embankment about 3:30 a.m. in Cumberland. The trailer was split in half and left in a heap of rubble.

        A tearful Jacqueline Bellofatto recounted pulling her 7-year-old daughter out of the mud beneath the trailer.

        “I just dug her out with my hands. She was buried alive,” Ms. Bellofatto said. “I just started yelling for her and she wasn't there.”

        Once the daughter was safe, Bellofatto, her husband, their daughter and 4-year-old son struck out for a neighbor's home to seek help.

        “We were fighting with each step that we took,” she said. “We would sink down to our chest in the mud.”

        In the flooded areas, emergency crews and rescue personnel were helping with evacuations, many being conducted by boat.

        “We're getting as many people and resources into it as we can to try to get it under control,” said Ray Bowman, spokesman for the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management. Nine counties were the most severely affected, he said. In addition to Knox and Harlan counties, flooding, mud slides and power outages were also reported in Whitley, Bell, McCreary, Clay, Leslie, Letcher and Perry counties, Mr. Bowman said.

        “It's bad all over,” said Jim Roark, a Harlan County magistrate. “There are lots of places that we can't get into yet to assess the damage.”

        Firefighters rescued two conservation officers from a tree after their boat capsized on their way to rescue three horses.

        “The good Lord was just with us today,” said Phillip Middleton, a firefighter with the Bledsoe Volunteer Fire Department.

        Middleton crossed on a rope to the tree where the men had been stranded for about an hour. One of the officers was able to cross on the rope, but the other, suffering from hypothermia, had to pulled ashore.

        National Guardsmen from an engineering battalion in Morehead were being sent to Harlan County with three boats, three trucks and a Humvee to assist with evacuations. Diesel-powered water pumps were being sent to Barbourville.

        Some schools were closed Monday as flash flood warnings remained in effect. The water lapped at the steps of a vocational school outside Pineville, covered two school buses, and inundated a $12 million golf course, built with state funds, near Pine Mountain State Resort Park.

        “I always said they shouldn't have built that golf course there,” said Carl Miracle of Pineville. “Everybody knew it would flood.”

        John Brock, superintendent of the state park, said he expects the golf course to reopen about a week after the water recedes.

        “There will be damage to bunkers, and we'll have to replace sand,” Brock said. “There will be deposits of mud and silt that will have to be cleaned up.”

        Four to five inches of rain fell during a 24-hour period ending Monday morning with a few isolated spots recording six inches of precipitation, according to meteorologist John Pelson at the National Weather Service office in Jackson.

        “We have significant flooding in the whole area,” said Tony Hall, of the same office.

        The rains were part of the same system that caused at least four deaths in Tennessee late Sunday.

        The forecast for the region called for rain off and on for the next few days, according to the National Weather Service.

        “We could get another couple inches of rain between Tuesday and Wednesday,” said Mike McLane, a weather service hydrologist. “We expect the Cumberland River will be in flood through Thursday.”

        Flooding in April 1977 killed at least five Kentuckians and caused an estimated $100 million in property damage in the region.

        Pineville was closed behind a flood wall in November 1990, and Barbourville in Knox County finished its flood wall project in September 1995.


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