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Louisa-Lawrence Co, KY

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June 23, 2018

A news announcement about flooding that included the loss of lives in far-away Kenya, was followed by the horrors the tropical depression brought to many from the Gulf of Mexico all the way to Michigan. Because the storm was broad there were lives lost eastwardly in North Carolina. Homes and businesses were washed away with the resulting flash floods in Tennessee and Kentucky.

As we enter into the hurricane season, there’s always a chance of more trauma and damage, not only along the coasts, but inland, as well. For many years I worked for the government and was assigned to ‘command posts’ for the purpose of maintaining logistical supplies for the agencies working the storm, including the responders, and in some cases the general public. My family had to ride out the storms, sometimes in dangerous conditions, without my help or assistance. This happened later in life and was a ‘growing up’ experience even if not experienced in my hometown.   

I learned about the idea that ‘Mother Nature’ was a force not to shuck off. My mother first told me about storms, fires, floods, and other natural events. That’s because, after all, natural disasters have always been about. Mankind has suffered with volcanic eruptions, and the devastation of communities, towns, and cities from earthquakes and mudslides. We are reminded daily of how fragile lives are. Putting our trust in the idea that ‘it won’t affect me,’ is just plain foolish. I just read of two grandparents whose car was washed away when they crossed a piece of flooded roadway. Only the car has been found, so far. Even today, my area is under a flood watch.    

I was still a child when twenty-seven people died when the school bus went into the Levisa fork in the Prestonsburg/Paintsville area. I was one of many who hung on to the news giving us details of the recovery operation that sought to bring the bus and the now deceased victims out of the cold waters of the Big Sandy. While this one wasn’t a natural occurrence, it did happen when the river was out of its banks, an all too common occurrence in those hills.

 When I was a tender young man, my first exposure to the results of high water happened when I was visiting a playmate whose parents owned a funeral home. When I was left alone outside for a few minutes I decided to go into the home to find my friend, Jimmy Young, who had gone in and said he’d be right back. He had been gone a long time. Upon entering the first floor (a ‘no-no’ since the family lived on the second floor), I went into the nicely appointed room and discovered a young girl lying peacefully in a casket. I had never seen a dead person before, or at least that I remembered. She was so young and pretty, and seemed so at peace that I wasn’t scared. My friend later told me that she had drowned when she fell from a footbridge into a swollen creek.

Our little town sat well above the river so even in the worst of times water had never gotten into the streets. I had seen the river swell, but rarely more than halfway out of its normal banks. Granted, there were other towns and villages along the branches of the Big Sandy, the Levisa, or Tug forks, which suffered with regular loss of lives, or property. Not Louisa. My granny who used to live on Water Street near the high school, told me of times when she watched houses float by her backyard in the swift, rising waters. When the structure hit the Louisa/Fort Gay bridge, it was the houses that broke up into pieces. I know enough engineering today to suspect that the bridges may have suffered damages, too. That bridge has been replaced with a modern, wider, cement structure.

 I remember on trips my mother and I took, that Huntington and Ashland had built moveable ‘flood-walls.’ They were meant to keep a flooding Ohio River away from the streets, homes, highways, and businesses. I remember hearing about the Guyandotte flooding between Charleston and Huntington. At the time that seemed so far away. No doubt the creeks from Blaine to Bear Creek flooded from time to time, but during most of these times I was busy doing things kids would do, to take notice. I was never one to get near a river in flood stage.

I do remember once when I was roaming about the lower end of town next to the Riverview hospital, that the river was very high. I walked out a few feet on the then, wooden pedestrian section of the bridge, and saw that the water was nearly touching the bottom of the steel grid structure. There was a lot of debris floating including big piles of logs, lumber, and maybe a roof from some building. I even saw livestock, err, maybe deadstock, floating away downriver. I backed away from this threat as pictures formed in my mind. I knew it wouldn’t take much more rain upstream to potentially raise the water level high enough to enter the town.

It was a few years after I had grown up and left town when another flood occurred and washed away a good portion of the land down near the locks. Between accusations and counter-accusations that I read about in a paper in Virginia, it was decided it was time to repair the dam and the locks to prevent, or control potential floods. Later, I read that it was done and a visit confirmed the fact. I had never seen it operational so this was new to me.

 Now that we are entering another ‘hurricane season,’ we’ve already seen deaths from flooding and falling trees. While the wind, high surf, and surges can affect me and my family, it can mean ‘flash-flooding’ in the mountains. Some of the Caribbean Islands not only suffered from the high winds and rising tides, but also from flash-flooding and landslides. People’s lives were snuffed-out in seconds. Some people never were to be found. Power is yet to be restored to some even a year later. Nature’s fury reminds us of the brevity of life and the temporary things we build. Such is the world today and such it will always be.

My feeling about floods was a foreboding that I could be drowned. It didn’t make me want to run down to the river, stand on a slick bank and watch. Rather, I chose to stay away. I never understood the people who built places on flood plains, and then rebuilt time again after spring floods had their way. I have read of places that moved their whole towns further uphill, and built their roads away from harm. Even with this the best we can do is try because nature does what it likes.

Floods come from melting snow, heavy rains, hurricanes, and poorly engineered dams. The disaster called the ‘Johnstown Flood,’ happened in central Pennsylvania when an earthen dam was topped and gave way. An entire town that was downstream was wiped out while the people slept. The dam had been built to create a hunting and fishing reserve for the wealthy, but warning about the dam’s integrity were ignored. Sometimes we learn, too late.

 Nature has many ways to bring on traumatic events. History tells us about earthquakes, and those continue along faults around the world. California is always expecting the ‘big one.’ Hawaii is experiencing an eruption. Archeologists are still digging out artifacts and remains from Pompeii near Mount Vesuvius.

Anyone who thinks nature is their friend, my advice is to keep nature at arm’s length, or even further if possible. Meanwhile, we have little choice but to use our heads and work with what we have. Nature’s power should never be underestimated. Whether wind, rain, lightning, snow, and hot or cold, nature will do as it wills. So ,with storm season here, please use caution my friends, and respect the watches and warnings. Life is fragile and our best defenses sometimes cannot cope.  Be alert, my friends. 

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0 #3 Bernard Nelson 2018-07-04 18:40
You're right Stan, I remember the bottom getting covered and sometimes would block Pike Street. I also remember when it was covered with Ice. That was the year we got to ice skate on the river from the locks to the bridge. We use to skate around the middle peer. We would make piles of snow and put torches in them to light the way at night for skating on the river. WOW did that ever bring back a lot of great memories. Thanks for sharing.
0 #2 Stan 2018-06-26 02:59
Mike, another great article. Pike St. was flooded twice because of water backup in Sammons bottom. I also remember the bottom was iced over.
0 #1 Bernard 2018-06-24 21:11
Great article Mike, yes the floods have destroyed a lot of homes and people around the world and it is very sad to witness these either in person or from TV news. I remember very well the school bus going in the river near Prestonsburg. In fact spent several days and nights up there dragging the river. If anything good came from it, with the help of Byron Young & R.S. "Funny" Miller we formed the Louisa Rescue Squad. As Byron & I were very active in Civil Defense at that time we got a lot of help through those channels. We had a lot of calls from folks falling in the river, turning over their boats etc. I don't know if they still have a "Rescue Squad" or if it is tied to the fire department??? Good and sad memories on this one, but all the same, "Thanks for the memories".

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