Kentucky Flood Survivors Turn to Grim Task: Burying the Dead

Angel Campbell should have been sitting in her usual chair in her grandmother’s living room this week, looking 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 the devastating floods that killed at least 37 people in eastern Kentucky, Campbell can’t stop thinking about how her grandmother was swept away.She said losing her “Mammaw” will plague her for a very long time.

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

Eastern Kentucky has been engaged for days now in the slow, grim task of recovering and burying the dead. Local funeral homes have settled into a steady cadence of visitations and memorials, sometimes in quick succession. The somber rituals have continued as more rain falls, prompting yet another flood watch across the Appalachian Mountains region. People here brace at the prospect of a new round of misery.

Funeral home workers have had to navigate the staggering losses, in communities where families have known each other for generations, some after losing their own houses. They’ve had to carry on without power or water at times, taking in so many bodies that a mobile refrigerator was brought in to add capacity.

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

No place in eastern Kentucky suffered more deaths than Knott County, where 17 people died in the historic flooding. The local coroner, Corey Watson, knew nearly all of them.

“I was retrieving people from scenes that I had known since I was a child or I had seen that person grow up,” Watson said. “It’s hard.”

The floodwaters tore families apart. Two sets of husbands and wives died. Whole families were decimated, the coroner said. Most of those who died were retirees, he said.

The floods in Pine Top surged through Randall and Rosa Lee Vick’s front door, ripped a huge hole in their back wall and swept them into the dark water. Vick said he had just a split second to speak to her before they went under. “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 lashed themselves together with extension cords and waded out to rescue him. They found his wife’s body miles away.

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

“I can’t bring back what I had,” Vick said. “I’m just going to have to get up and go on. I’ll make it.”

For some families, the funerals have offered their first chance to reflect on the losses after days of digging out.

Campbell’s mother, Patricia Collins, was at home with her boyfriend next door to Howard’s home in Chavies, Kentucky, when the storms hit. Collins went to check on her, and climbed with Howard onto the kitchen table, but it collapsed into the surging water.

Collins was in the water for two hours, pinned between a couch and a car. The only thing that saved her was a flashing taillight that caught the eye of her neighbors, who pulled 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 pulled their grandmother from the water, checked for a pulse and wiped mud from her face. Then he asked the neighbors for a sheet to cover her and sat with her body for hours.

Both homes are now in ruins, carried in pieces hundreds of feet from where Howard had lived for half a century.

Campbell said she and her grandmother either saw each other or spoke on the phone every day. Howard was a deeply religious woman who tended to her rose garden and thanked the Lord each morning for letting her see another day.

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

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

Just like the ones in her grandmother’s garden.

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