Kentucky flood survivors return to a grim mission: bury the dead

CHAVIES, Ky. (AP) – Angel Campbell should be sitting in her usual chair in her grandmother’s living room this week, looking through old photo albums and eating her favorite soup bean.

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

A week after Nellie Mae Howard, 82, died in eastern Kentucky in devastating floods that killed at least 37 people, Campbell can’t help but think about how she was swept away. She said losing her “Mammaw” would haunt her for a very long time.

“The way he left this world is tearing me apart,” he said. “This feels so cruel.”

Eastern Kentucky has been busy for days with the heavy and brutal task of rescuing and burying the dead. Local funeral homes settled into a regular rhythm of visitation and commemoration, sometimes in rapid succession. As more rain fell, the somber rituals continued, leading to another flood watch in the Appalachian mountain region. People here are prepared for the possibility of a new cycle of misery.

In communities where families have known each other for generations, funeral home workers have had to deal with staggering losses after some have lost their own homes. At times they had to go without electricity or water, so many bodies that a mobile fridge was brought in to add capacity.

Mobile federal emergency management centers have opened in at least seven counties where people can request money for urgent needs. A relief fund set up by Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear has begun distributing money to cover funeral expenses for flood victims.

Nowhere in eastern Kentucky has lost more lives than in Knott County, where 17 people died in historic flooding. Local coroner Corey Watson knew nearly all of them.

“I was shooting people from scenes I knew from childhood or saw that person grow up,” Watson said. “Hard.”

Flood waters tore families apart. Two couples, husband and wife, died. The coroner said entire families were “destroyed”. He said most of those who died were retired.

Watson said her training had taught her how to compose, but in such an extreme case she wondered: “When you see so many people dying and there are attempts to save their lives or keep them together, how can you pick yourself up properly? It’s disturbing, “But we have to get through this. We have to get through this. We can always keep their memories in our hearts.”

The flood at Pine Top entered Randall and Rosa Lee Vick’s front door, punched a large hole in their back wall and swept them into dark water. Vick said she only had a few seconds to talk to him before they sank. “I love you no matter what,” she said.

Vick held onto a tree for about seven hours before Kevin Patrick and another neighbor tied themselves together with extension cords and went outside to save him. They found his wife’s body miles away.

What remained of their homes came to rest on the opposite side of their normally calm creek. A neighbor lent him a pop-up camper to live in when he was ready.

“I can’t get back what I have,” Vick said. “I’ll just have to get up and move on. I’ll do that.”

Denver Bates, 76, drove by to check on them on Thursday. Vicks had worked for him, cut his lawn.

“There were four and five cars on their way. Money. The yard was kept clean. They lived well and God told them who was boss,” Bates said.

A family friend, Jade Dollarhide, hugged Vick as she saw what she needed.

“We may not have all the malls, we may not have all these big businesses and factories and everything, but what we lack in money is that we are rich in friendship and family,” Dollarhide said. “That’s the important thing.”

For some families, funerals offered their first chance to pause and reflect on losses after days of digging.

Campbell’s mother, Patricia Collins, was at home with her boyfriend next door to Howard’s house in Chavies, Kentucky, when the storms started. Collins went to check on him and climbed onto the kitchen table with his grandmother, but the table fell into running water.

Collins was in the water for two hours, trapped between a sofa and a car. The only thing that saved him was a flashing tail light that caught the eye of his neighbors pulling him to safety. Battered and bruised, he never saw Howard alive again.

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

Moved hundreds of meters from where Howard had lived for half a century, both houses are in ruins.

Campbell said her grandmother was like her second mother. They either saw each other every day or talked on the phone. She can still hear him chuckling on the other line or telling him to remember to thank Jesus for all the good in his life. She was a deeply religious woman who overlooked the rose garden and thanked the Lord for allowing her to see another day each morning.

He was the person Campbell went to most often for advice—he knew what to say.

“I always thought that one day when I had to say goodbye to him, I would sit in my favorite chair and remember all the good times,” she said. “But I can’t even do that, and it really hurts.”

Almost everything that her grandmother and mother owned was lost in the flood. Miraculously, a photograph still hung on one wall – a portrait of his grandparents who had passed away 13 years ago.

This photo was displayed next to the white coffin at her funeral this week, alongside a spray of roses put together by a family friend.

Just like the ones in your grandmother’s garden.


AP contributors from Willingham, Charleston, W.Va. include National Writer Allen G. Breed of Hindman, Ky., and news researchers Rhonda Shafner and Jennifer Farrar from New York.

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