Flood survivors in Kentucky begin grim task: bury the dead

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CHAVIES, Ky. (TUSEN) – Angel Campbell should have been sitting in her usual chair in her grandmother’s living room this week, flipping through her old photo albums and eating her favorite soup beans.

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 continues to think about how she was swept away. She said losing her “Mammaw” will haunt her for a long time to come.

“The way she had to leave this earth just breaks me,” she said. “It just feels so cruel.”

Eastern Kentucky has been at the slow, grim task of recovering and burying the dead for days now. Local funeral homes have settled in a steady cadence of visits and memorials, sometimes in quick succession. The bleak rituals continued as more rain fell, triggering yet another flood watch over the Appalachian Mountains. The people here brace themselves at the prospect of another round of misery.

Funeral directors have had to deal with staggering losses in communities where families have known each other for generations, some after losing their own homes. They sometimes had to do without electricity or water and took so many bodies that a mobile refrigerator was used to expand the capacity.

Mobile federal emergency management centers were opened in at least seven counties where people could ask for money for immediate needs. A relief fund set up by Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear has begun distributing money to pay the funeral costs of flood victims.

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Nowhere in eastern Kentucky were there more deaths than in Knott County, where 17 people died in the historic flooding. The local coroner, Corey Watson, knew almost all of them.

“I was picking people up from scenes I’d known since I was a kid or watched growing up,” Watson said. “It is difficult.”

The floods tore families apart. Two sets of husbands and wives died. Entire families were “decimated,” the coroner said. Most of those who died were retirees, he said.

Watson said his training taught him to compose himself, but in such an extreme situation he wondered: “How do you properly unwind when you see a multitude of people dying and there are attempts to save their lives? or to keep them together? It’s disturbing, but we have to get through this. We have to overcome it. We can always keep their memory in our hearts.”

The Pine Top floods poured through Randall and Rosa Lee Vick’s front door, ripping a huge hole in their back wall and dragging them into the dark water. Vick said he only had a split second to talk to her before they went down. “Whatever happens, I love you,” he said.

Vick was able to cling to a tree for about seven hours before Kevin Patrick and another neighbor tied themselves together with extension cords and waded out to rescue him. They found his wife’s body miles away.

What was left of their home came to rest on the other side of their normally quiet creek. A neighbor has lent him a pop-up RV to live in, once he’s ready.

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“I can’t bring back what I had,” Vick said. “I just have to get up and move on. I will make it.”

Denver Bates, 76, drove up to them on Thursday to check. The Vicks had worked for him and mowed his lawn.

“They had four and five cars in their driveway. Money. Yards kept clean. They lived well and God let them know who’s boss,’ Bates said.

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

“We may not have all the malls, we may not have all these big jobs and factories and everything else, but what we lack in money, you know, we are rich in friendship and family,” Dollarhide said. “That’s what matters.”

For some families, the funerals offered their first chance to pause and reflect on the losses from days of excavation.

Campbell’s mother, Patricia Collins, was at home with her boyfriend next to Howard’s home in Chavies, Kentucky, when the storm hit. Collins went to see her and climbed onto the kitchen table with her grandmother, but she sank into the running water.

Collins was in the water for two hours, wedged between a couch and a car. The only thing that saved her was a flashing taillight that caught the attention of her neighbors, who brought her to safety. Battered and bruised, she never saw Howard alive again.

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

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Both houses are now in ruins, worn to pieces hundreds of yards from where Howard had lived for half a century.

Campbell said her grandmother was her second mother. They saw each other or spoke to each other on the phone every day. She can still hear her giggle on the other end of the line, or tell her to remember to thank Jesus for all the good things in her life. She was a deeply religious woman who tended her rose garden and thanked the Lord every morning for letting her see her for another day.

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

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

Almost everything her grandmother and mother owned was lost in the flood. Miraculously, a photo still hung on the wall: a portrait of her grandmother and grandfather, who passed away 13 years ago.

That photo was shown next to the white coffin at her funeral this week, near a bunch of roses curated by a family friend.

Just like the one in her grandmother’s garden.

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

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