Photos by Josh Birnbaum
Spring 2011 -- THE WATER began swallowing Susan Lemaster’s home at 2 a.m. July 22. She was sleeping when her 27-year-old daughter, trembling, shook her awake. “It’s flooding!” she screamed. Susan threw on some clothes and squished through her soaked carpet down the hallway to her son’s room. “Johnny, get up!"
They watched out the window as the porch floated away. The water rose higher. The door wouldn’t budge, as hard as they all pushed against it. There was nowhere to go. Suddenly, the river burst through the patio door. Susan tried to grab something, but the water jerked her into its grip. As she floated through the door, she stared at her children. Her head sank underneath the river and water spilled into her lungs. She could see nothing, except the swirling, muscular river carrying her downstream like a wet rag. “Lord, just save my kids,” she prayed.
IN OLIVE HILL, KENTUCKY, at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, in a state known for its lush grass and spring-fed lakes, water is death. The woes of the town have gone largely unnoticed by the national media. But for a century now, it has flooded about a dozen times, wreaking havoc and destruction on families and businesses that make up the community of 2,000.
In 2010, during a three-month stretch, two storm systems pelted Nashville and Cincinnati with more than five inches of water in a matter of hours. Olive Hill was caught in the middle. The deluge engulfed the town twice, in May and July, whooshing along Railroad Street, inside Jim Short’s hardware store, up Tom T. Hall Boulevard, obliterating Jeannie’s Flowers, and down Scott Street, pummeling Tyler’s Pizza. In the first flood, the water ravaged the businesses. In the second flood, the rushing currents took a life.
Today, six months after the creek swept through this tiny Appalachian enclave, I walk past buildings that remain boarded up, hiding the ruin inside. Most days, the only noise is the occasional car rattling down the street. Olive Hill looks and feels like a ghost town. But looks can be deceiving. Inside their ruined shell, residents remain as determined as ever to rebuild their community. To them, Olive Hill is much more than brick, mortar, and wood. It’s sacred ground, consecrated by their blood and suffering over the last century, the only place on earth that gives meaning to their existence. Signs boast of their once-mighty basketball stars, and of their famous storyteller, Tom T. Hall. Their memories cradle every terrifying encounter they have overcome, together, year after year. That’s why, no matter how devastated it might appear, no one who lives in the community is giving up on it. Olive Hill runs through their blood, a kind of mystical experience that transforms the reality of their existence.“There are certain villages and towns, mountains and plains that, having seen them, walked in them, lived in them, even for a day, we keep forever in the mind’s eye. They become indispensable to our well-being; they define us, and we say, I am who I am because I have been there, or there.”
N. Scott Momaday, “Revisiting Sacred Ground”
OLIVE HILL SQUATS in between the mountains rising to the west and the east, tucked in a remote valley next to Tygarts Creek. The town lies an hour east of Lexington and an hour west of Huntington, West Virginia. It consists of little more than a post office, two dollar stores, two grocery stores, and a few restaurants. The creek curves just behind the town and winds for miles, all the way to the Ohio River. The water, a murky brown, is usually quiet and still and reflects the maples and oaks that flank the creek banks.
In the mornings, everyone stops at the local Speedway or Dairy Queen for their coffee before they head off to work. But the people who live here don’t work here. Most of the town commutes to nearby towns for factory jobs or hospital jobs. They return every evening, when the creek lays still against the sun and the hills are bathed in an almost holy glow. When Olive Hill sleeps, the only sound anyone hears is the trickling of Tygarts Creek.
"Kentucky people are strong."
The people here speak in soft, slow phrases and take their time driving down Tom T. Hall Boulevard. They worship two Gods: Jesus, and basketball. Perhaps the most famous person in town is the legendary girls basketball coach John “Hop” Brown. Brown, who died a few years ago of brain cancer, led the high school team to the state championship in 2000 against the perennial power, Shelbyville. The whole town shut down every year when the girls went to state. The high school paid for buses to carry students six hours to Bowling Green where they could watch their team play.
Parents took sick days from work. Others who couldn’t afford to leave stood alongside the closed-down streets during the goodbye parade and, at night, kept their radios beside their beds. In 2000, the pope was apologizing for the wrongdoings of the Catholic Church and Elian Gonzalez was returning to Cuba. Butin Olive Hill, none of that mattered. The only thing that did was winning state—to prove to the rest of the state, to the rest of the nation, that Olive Hill was no ordinary place.
THE FIRST FLOOD ARRIVED on a Sunday in May. It rained all day Saturday, saturating the soil and swelling the creek. But Tygarts Creek, which stretches out just south of the town, didn’t spill until late Sunday.
The water cut through town in its usual path: north, over the banks, flooding everything in its way—the new senior citizen center, a hardware store, a pizza shop, the local telephone company (frying communication for 5,000 customers), the post office, and the fire department. All told, water invaded 51 of the town’s 75 businesses.
Bessie Bond (pictured below) spent Sunday with her daughter. The 66-year-old with a scratchy voice and thick glasses has lived in a white, two-story home on Mill Street for more than 30 years. She was born and raised in Olive Hill, on a farm with no running water or plumbing, just north of the city limits. She raised her three kids here and when her husband died years ago, Bessie worked in factories, earning minimum wage to support her children. She brought her mother to Mill Street in 2004 after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. When the disease held Bessie’s mother in death’s grip, she called hospice and had them set up a hospital bed in the living room so her mother could still watch the cars pass by. And that’s where Bessie’s mother died, right there in her living room, staring at trucks tinkering down the street.
When the rains come, Bessie camps out with family. All she wanted to do Monday morning was get the milk out of the refrigerator. Her daughter, Rena Walker, told her no. “Mom, the fridge is laying in the living room,” she said. Sure enough, when Bessie checked on her house, the water had even crept upstairs and destroyed the couch she had tried to save. “We thought we had everything safe,” she says.
A peculiar smell enveloped Olive Hill. Fish flapped in puddles. Dead ones lay on banks. Propane tanks that settled downstream had leaked gas through the whole town. “It smelled like rotten worms. Everywhere,” says Bessie’s son Jeff Bond.
After the deluge, Bessie convinced herself it wouldn’t flood again. She ripped out her carpets and spent two months installing gleaming hardwood floors. She bought new cabinets and painted her walls the color of the moon. “I loved my house,” she says. “I feel like I’ve put half my life in there. Why would I move away? I feel like I’ve been blessed.”
Alma Sturgill is tall and thin with wiry gray hair pulled back in a loose bun. Her blue eyes are light, reflecting the wisdom
of age and experience. She’s lived in this town her whole life, which could be 60-some years or 70-some years (she says a woman can always lie about her age). She met her husband, Darwin, when they were teenagers and married him in 1955. Together, their life revolved around music—mostly bluegrass—and they worked for decades to build the reputation of Sturgill’s Music Store. They even had a museum in the back of the store with bluegrass memorabilia worth thousands. Five years ago, with her banjo music blaring outside, she found people dancing outside her shop. They told her, “We wished we lived in a town that played music on the street.”
Alma and her nephew had put foam sealer on the doors of the store Sunday in May. But the water surged up the street in minutes, nearly five feet deep.
Monday morning, Alma went to work. She put on her gloves and mask and started sweeping the mud. Not one tear slipped from her cheeks. Humans have a funny ability, she says. “You can go numb. We have that built in us. When you need it, it comes out. Falling apart doesn’t help anything.”
Alma spent two months hauling off about $100,000 in muddy merchandise. She couldn’t help but think of the people who’d miss this place. Darwin had loved Olive Hill and his music store. He always told Alma there wasn’t another town on earth like this one. When he died, she couldn’t bear giving up the life they shared. After the first flood, she opened up her store in a different building across the street, thinking of Darwin as she painted the walls and hung pictures of him and his banjo. It was “sentimental,” she says of opening the store again. “It’s not easy, but nothing else is. Kentucky people are strong.”
But when the rains hit the second time, the water didn’t spare Alma, and it didn’t spare Bessie. The water rushed from the banks so quickly, people were trapped in attics and barns, porches and cars. Some literally ran for their lives.
One woman couldn’t run.
OLIVE HILL DIDN'T ALWAYS face Mother Nature’s wrath. In the mid-19th century, the town existed on a sloping hill that is now called Jordan Heights. Olive Hill presently begins at an intersection of two highways. The intersection lies in a valley, between moss-colored hills, right beside Tygarts Creek.
In 1861, when a dashing Confederate general nicknamed the “Rebel Raider” galloped into town, three Yankee sympathizers fired on him and his men. The Yankee men slipped away, but the general, John Hunt Morgan, got his revenge. He gave his orders: Torch the town.
The town was rebuilt around Tygarts Creek in preparation for the railroad. Merchants needed easy access to goods transported through town. It made sense to center the new location on Tygarts Creek. That way, train operators would have water to cool the steam engines.
Some old timers in town smirk at the great irony of Olive Hill's present-day plight: though fire destroyed Olive Hill 150 years ago, water has been the town’s nemesis ever since.
JIM SHORT IS ONE of the old timers. A retired history teacher and former mayor, Jim Short grew up in Olive Hill, and like a goading father might look upon a crippled child, Jim sees potential where others see infirmity.
“If we wouldn’t have had so many floods, Olive Hill would be five times the size it is now,” he says, sipping on cherry Coke at Tyler’s Pizza. Jim is a tall man, with stooped shoulders that seem to carry a reserve of strength and stubbornness.
Jim’s history with the creek goes back decades. He owns three buildings that were demolished in both floods this year. His wife was born during a flood. His cousin swam through Tygart in the 1939 flood.
But still, Jim rebuilds his shops each time the water destroys them. There’s a “camaraderie” about the town that doesn’t exist anywhere else, he says.
“The flood plain, as terrible as it may be, is a natural gathering place for the people,” Jim says. “It’s a sacred place. It goes back to the old era when the railroads were operating. That’s where everybody came to get their commerce. From on toward Rowan County (to the west), we have over 100 churches and all those churches have had a bake sale on the streets of Olive Hill, at one time or another, in the middle of the flood plain. People have lived here for generations. Their families have lived here for generations.”
In an editorial to the local paper in June, Jim unleashed his angst. He wants the town to thrive; he wants things to go back to the way they used to be, before the floods ravaged Olive Hill this year.
“I miss hearing bluegrass music coming from Sturgill’s,” he wrote. “I miss stopping in at Larry Carroll’s frame shop for a free cup of coffee and an impromptu fiddle tune from his brother Marvin or a gardening secret from his older brother, Lewis. I miss loafing at Terry’s Video Rental. I miss picking music every Friday at my business with Mike Barker, Marvin Carroll, and John Carter. I miss the good burgers at Walker’s Grill. I even miss gossiping with all my old buddies in front of the post office.”
In 1961, the town celebrated the 100-year anniversary of John Hunt Morgan torching Olive Hill. Jim’s father-in-law played Morgan and dozens of townspeople dressed in Confederate uniforms, galloping through the town on muscular horses. “It was like Hiroshima celebrating the bombing,” Jim says, laughing. But Morgan had burned his way into Olive Hill’s memory, and today, there’s a bed and breakfast dedicated to Morgan on Tom T. Hall Boulevard. It sits right beside the well where the Rebel Raider and his men watered their horses. The night of the burning, they used so much water, they drained the well.
After the townspeople rebuilt Olive Hill beside Tygarts Creek, the flooding began, Jim explains. The first was in 1913, the second hit in 1935, but the worst of the early-century floods was in 1939. The town was demolished. Water poured into nearly every building on Railroad Street. In one photo, two children canoed through the streets, staring at the still river that had destroyed their town. The storms struck again in the 40s, and in 1950. Buildings seemed to float on the muddy creek in 1950, their windows hidden against a backdrop of murky water. Tygarts Creek rested until 1997 when about a foot of water swept through the town and into the buildings, a small but surefire sign of what was to come in the next millennium.
In 2002, a warm spring day gave way to thunderstorms. Dark clouds let loose a deluge of rain, and the creek spilled into Hydreco Village, the only public housing in town. The governor declared a national disaster and FEMA handed out about $500,000 in help. Hydreco Village, for the low-income and the elderly, was torn down and rebuilt in the same spot. The town’s leaders consulted the Army Corps of Engineers for advice. The Corps recommended they raise the ground eight feet where the apartments sit—supposedly out of the flood plain.
But this year, Hydreco Village flooded again, leaving dozens with no home. FEMA gave nearly $4 million in assistance in May and July to more than 600 families. Meteorologists couldn’t explain why Olive Hill was hit so hard. One said flooding was a natural byproduct of the earth warming up. But another, Chris Bailey at WSAZ in Huntington, said Olive Hill was a perfect X for two storm systems. In May, when the media rushed to Nashville, the storm system moved from southwest Tennessee and traveled northeast. In July, the clouds rolled from Cincinnati to the southeast. “It was odd,” Bailey says. “It you put an X on Olive Hill, that was the center point. No other areas were in that axis. Chances are slim for that to happen. You just don’t see that same thing happen to a community in a decade, let alone two months.”
In September, residents raised one question again and again: Why does Olive Hill flood so much?
Five years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers tried to answer that question in a study of the creek. The main fault, the study seems to suggest, is the creek. Tygarts Creek forms about seven miles west of Olive Hill. It stretches 42 miles long and 8 miles wide, forming a rectangular shape through eastern Kentucky. Near the headwaters to Olive Hill, the creek flows in a valley about 1,000 feet wide, and 10 other creeks flow into Tygart from the Olive Hill area before it spews into the Ohio River 30 miles northeast of town. According to the study, when the clouds darken and spit rain into the creek, there is one particular area that seems to flood first. The creek lies just behind Railroad Street, separating Olive Hill and another area called Ben’s Run. A bridge connects the two communities, and there is a flapper gate underneath the bridge for water to flow through. When the creek rises, the pressure of the water builds, the flapper gates close, and water fills the downtown, gushing first over Railroad Street.
“The town of Olive Hill certainly has a significant flooding problem,” the study reported.
EVERYTHING SEEMED FINE on July 21. It was raining, hard, but at 10 p.m., Tygarts Creek was still and the radar showed that the rain was nearly over. Olive Hill went to sleep.
Firefighters received the first call at 1:45 a.m. Water had come rushing from two branches of the creek—Mills Branch, which curves along northeast of the town, and Henderson Branch, which winds along the northwest part of town. Storms had pounded the town with seven inches of rain in six hours.
Water gushed from Henderson Branch so fast it ripped out a tile and tossed it into a church parking lot. Mills Branch surged onto Bessie Bond’s street so quickly she had only a few minutes to throw some of her pictures up her newly installed steps before she scrambled out the door and up the bank.
Smith Run, a normally shallow creek that empties into Tygart just west of Olive Hill, cut through driveways and shredded pavement. When one woman returned home from a trip to Florida a few days after the flood, she nearly drove into the creek. Her trailer sits on a hill above Smith Run and the creek had torn a perfect path through her gravel drive, leaving a 10-by-8 hole.
Henderson Branch rolled up through town and split in two directions: it crushed into Speedway on the east side and headed southeast over Tom T. Hall Boulevard, straight toward the fire department and Tygarts Creek. After the water flowed through Speedway, the muddy river took a left on Tom T. Hall Boulevard and right on Scott Street, straight to Sturgill’s Music Store. Mills Branch traveled south to Tygart, too, spilling onto Tom T. Hall Boulevard, Mills Street, and Railroad Street.
Bessie Bond’s home was ruined again. After two months and $25,000 in repairs, the water came up three feet in her house. She wants to go home, to the memories of her mother and the cars passing by the street. Her children won’t let her. “It holds a lot of good memories, and bad memories are easy to forget,” she says. She keeps her phone turned on in her empty house, that same number she’s had for 30 years.
Alma Sturgill lost two rows of CDs she’d just replaced. The water was a foot high inside her new shop. This time, she was smarter. She hung pictures of Darwin high on the wall.
But Olive Hill hadn’t seen the worst. Tygarts Creek hadn’t swelled to its crest and traveled east to Grahn, where another hundred people lay sleeping in their beds.
APRIL MADDIX and her husband, Scottie, live in a trailer behind the Grahn Post Office. Their home seems like it’s hidden in a cove of moss. A waterfall gushes in the hills rising above their trailer. For quiet nights away from their seven children, they bathe there.
At 2 a.m. in July, when the second flood hit, the Maddix family (pictured above) was sleeping. When April woke to use the restroom, she felt the water as soon as her feet hit the floor. She ran to the window and looked outside. Her lawn was now a lake.
The soft-spoken woman screamed. “Get your shoes on!”
Her husband, Scottie, sprinted to his pickup truck. The water was pooling at the tires. April and the children were waiting on the porch when he pulled up the truck. They loaded the children and drove to the barn on the hill. Everything was dark. The kids were soaked and sobbing. The rain and rushing water were so loud April and Scottie had to scream to hear each other.
They counted the children. Seven. The barn was dry, but it was so cold. Scottie ran to the neighbor’s house up the hill and banged on the door. When the children stepped up the man’s porch, they could hear someone yelling in the distance.
Scottie squinted in the dark. A trailer was dangling crossways in the creek.
Then, he saw her. It was Susan Lemaster, his neighbor.
AS THE CREEK WINDS its way through Grahn, it meets another small community: Fultz. Weeping willow trees hang beside the creek bed, and as you drive along the road, you’ll see nothing but slanting hills and the occasional deer crossing the pavement.
Kenny Hall has grown up in Fultz his whole life. A self-described “gun and horse man,” Kenny is squat, with broad shoulders, a wide chest, and eyes the color of a clear sea. On the morning of July 22, he was asleep, too, but quickly awoke when his brother called at 3 a.m., asking Kenny to help him rescue his flooding home.
Kenny didn’t stay at his brother’s long. He knew his aunt and other family members on up the creek were worse off. He hurried to his aunt’s, water spewing from the tires of his '83 Dodge Ram the whole way. He parked on a bank and gasped when he saw her home. A dark river was churning around the single-wide trailer. His cousin was outside, struggling against the water, banging on a window. “Go get a rope,” Kenny yelled to him.
His cousin ran up the bank for help. Kenny began wading toward the trailer, then stopped. The trailer had begun to move.
THE WATER WAS SO STRONG. Every time Susan Lemaster raised her head above the water and tried to yell for help, the current pulled her under. After what seemed like two minutes of flailing and trying to swim, she found a branch.
Scottie remembers running through the rain to find Susan. He doesn’t remember a branch, only seeing Susan’s head bobbing up and down. He waded into the water. It was neck-deep. “Hold on,” he told Susan, extending his hand.
But Susan panicked. She reached into the darkness, desperate for something. She grabbed at Scottie. By the time Scottie pulled her to the bank, she had ripped the back of his jeans in half. Susan was shaking. Through vomiting, she screamed, “My babies! They’re dead! They’re drowned!” Scottie looked at the trailer. “I think your kids are done dead,” he told her.
A light pierced through the darkness.
THE TRAILER WAS INCHING its way toward a small cove. Kenny punched through the water, struggling to keep up against the current. The trailer had reached a bridge. Kenny turned toward his truck, scrambled up the bank, and drove to the bridge. Windows began popping into the creek. Water poured inside the trailer. Kenny stood on the bridge and peered inside a window. He yelled to his aunt. “Mary, come to me!”
“I can’t. I’m on the floor,” she said.
Fifteen seconds later, the trailer turned sideways. Another window popped out. The current ripped off the door. A loud cracking noise struck through the pouring rain. The back wall of the trailer caved in, and the roof sunk beneath the water. “It crumbled like a pop can,” Kenny says. Only one wall remained. He climbed back up to his truck and yelled to his son. “Get in the truck,” he said. Kenny and his son threw themselves inside the Dodge and Kenny jerked the pickup into four-wheel drive. The water was over the bridge and onto the bank, and the river lifted the truck, turning it sideways, toward the rushing river. “This is it,” Kenny thought.
“Don’t look back,” he told his son. “Just get to the bank.” He shined a flashlight through the dark while his son waded his way through the water.
Kenny opened the door to greet death. He can’t swim.
SCOTTIE SWAM THROUGH THE water, toward the creek where Susan’s children were trapped. He pulled himself up and opened the back door. Water rushed out. The light was coming somewhere from the back.
He waded through the water. The trailer tilted with each step. He heard voices. “Help us!” Susan’s children were floating on a deep freeze in the kitchen, holding a flashlight. They grabbed Scottie’s hand and treaded through the water.
When they reached the banks, April was sitting on the neighbor’s porch, tears spilling from her cheeks. “I didn’t think you’d make it,” she told Scottie. Susan was wrapped in a blanket and a small black dog panted next to her.
Susan’s daughter started laughing. “At least Spanky got a bath.”
THE WATER RIPPED ITS WAY through Kenny (at right). He pushed against the current, shining his flashlight toward the bank. He gripped rocks—anything his feet touched—to shove toward the light. When his shoes hit the bottom of the bank and he lifted himself from the water, he sank to the pavement. His cousin ran down the hill. “Did you get mom?” he asked Kenny. “Son, I couldn’t get to her.”
The men cried. Kenny prayed, kneeling next to dead fish. His cousin, a preacher, prayed with him. Another family member was trapped inside a trailer.
“I just can’t bear the thought of seeing another family member wash under a bridge,” Kenny said to God. “If you help my cousin, my heart is yours.”
Search parties found the body of Kenny’s aunt four days later, five miles downstream.
AFTER THE WATER SANK BACK into the creek the morning of July 22, the town sprung into action. Firefighters had already scoured the town in canoes for hours. They rescued about 40 families and didn’t sleep for 36 hours. The current had ripped one firefighter’s home from its foundation and his trailer crashed into a bridge a half mile downstream. But this man didn’t look back, and instead, he went out to rescue other families, leaving his children and wife at the firehouse.
Starlene Harris opened the Grahn Community Center at 6 a.m. She began scrambling eggs and baking biscuits, and soaked, exhausted families stumbled through the doors, now homeless. Everyone worked the phone lines, and when the phone lines wouldn’t work, they drove the streets. One couple was rescued from their attic by their neighbors, who tip-toed over steel beams. The beams were once part of a bridge before an uprooted tree crashed through the wooden planks. When one woman opened the door to her pizza shop, 25 people were already waiting at the doors to help.
Starlene and other volunteers cooked from daylight to dusk that day in July, feeding about 80 families. They didn’t stop for two weeks. The assistance poured in: a man donated his empty house to one family; a company out of another town hauled in 50 twin-sized mattresses; people brought in hundreds of bags of clothing; somehow, insulin needles showed up just when one man turned pale; the city donated dumpsters for cleanup. “If there was a need, it was met,” Starlene says. “People just came together. That’s the way it’s always been. That’s Olive Hill.”
The streets were shut down, and through the mud, the people worked. Bulldozers and garbage trucks replaced cars and vans on the highways. The people threw out their past, one trash bag at a time.
Susan Lemaster (center, below) sits in an office 20 miles west of Olive Hill, where she manages a gas station. She has a round, flushed face, and when she talks about nearly drowning, her face flushes brighter, her eyes well with tears, and her wide smile fades into sorrow. She’s living with her mother, but she just bought a home in Pleasant Valley, a community a few miles east of Olive Hill. After her neighbor saved Susan and her two kids, they took Susan away in an ambulance. The doctors told her she had pneumonia, but she didn’t stay in the hospital. She wanted to go home.
“I thought I had a nice place,” she says. “I had a nice garage, an outbuilding, a cellar, a long porch across the front, and my house was white with blue trim and shutters, about sky blue.”
Her home wasn’t there when she arrived back from the hospital. It was still floating sideways in the creek. All she could taste and smell was floodwater.
Tears fell from her cheeks as she looked down at her desk. She can’t afford to go back home. She still owes money on her trailer for two more years. Now, she has another house payment. It was hers for 26 years, that land. And the land is still there; so are the memories of her and her kids.
You could say Susan was luckier than her neighbor. Scottie Maddix and his wife April have seven children. No one has room for nine extra people. So the family pitched tents for three weeks, right where their double-wide was, before someone gave them a single-wide trailer with holes in the siding. They showered with a garden hose.
Scottie is a slight man with skin darkened from hours spent in the sun. He’s no stranger to hard times. He has one kidney and a leaky heart valve. When he was a kid, he found his uncle dead on a couch. The old man had shot his hand in a drunken stupor, then passed out and bled to death. Regardless of bad memories, Scottie loves his home in Grahn, simply because it’s always been home, he says. Even though the creek ripped his house in half, he wants his new trailer to sit in the same spot, right in front of the waterfall where he and April like to sneak away for a few hours. It’ll just sit a bit higher.
“I stay here because I’ve lived here all my life,” Scottie says. “The school up here, I used to go to this school and walk on these railroad tracks, hunt in these woods, swim in this creek, ride bicycles, play with my friends. My family, my grandpa, all them was raised up around here. Plus we have a cemetery back here, too. I go up there sometimes and visit my own cemetery where my people’s been buried.”
His own sacred ground.
THE VOLUNTEERS SEARCHED for four days to find Kenny Hall’s aunt. They came from every community: Olive Hill, Grahn, Morehead, Fultz. One morning, five miles from where Kenny had watched his aunt float away under a bridge, they found her. The water had preserved her body, and she looked the same as she always did, with a small frame; tight, curly black hair; and shiny blue eyes.
He found out later that day that his aunt had visited the hair stylist. The beautician said Mary couldn’t wait to get to heaven, the most sacred of all places. And Kenny’s cousin survived the flood, something he considers a miracle.
“When you see death that close and could have been with it, and see that God had sympathy to bring you out of it, it’ll change your life,” Kenny says. “That’s as close as I’ve come to shaking hands with the devil and I didn’t want to do it.”
The water didn’t take his home. Kenny, a now-devout Baptist and heavy equipment operator, lives by a smaller branch of the creek in a single-wide trailer decorated with deer heads. Even if the flood destroyed his house, he’d stick around, he says. This is where he grew up, on a farm with no running water, where he loves to hunt deer and squirrel and teach his son all the best hunting tricks. “That’s a reason they say West Virginia is almost heaven because Kentucky is heaven,” Kenny says. “I’ve been as far west as you could go. I wouldn’t give up Kentucky for any of it, I just sure wouldn’t. It’s my favorite. There are probably prettier states but there’s no place I’d rather be.”
CLEAN THE CREEK. Clean the creek. That’s all everyone seemed to be talking about after the second flood. If you clear the dirt and debris from the creek bed, there’s more room for water to flow through, explained one man.
“Grass is growing too close,” Alma Sturgill says. “The water doesn’t have a place to go. When water comes down that fast it needs a way to get out. I don’t understand why it hasn’t been cleaned.”
In late September, the backhoes arrived. A local steel company donated the equipment to remove the sediment that had built up over the years. The sound of the machine grinding against the creek filled the town as volunteers dumped tons of dirt into trucks, ready to be hauled to anyone’s home, free of charge.
The study the Army Corps of Engineers conducted in 2005 proved to be worthless for the town. The Corps looked at seven different alternatives for Olive Hill. None were feasible, explained John Yeager, the chief of flood plain management. “Benefits have to be greater than the cost,” he says.
The study concluded the alternatives explored were too costly, and the damages incurred from flooding would outweigh the cost of the project. “It does not appear . . . an alternative exists for Olive Hill,” the study reported.
Cleaning the creek is also not something the Corps endorses. “It doesn’t help because it has to be so frequently maintained, it’s not sustainable,” John says.
So the floods will come again. And the people will rebuild again. This land, their land, is all they have. At night, when the sun dips down behind the hills and a dark curtain slips over the town and the townspeople sleep, the water trickles downstream, muddy, untamed, and constant.