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‘We’re trapped.’ Scores of small bridges damaged in record Eastern Kentucky flooding

Aug. 3, 2022 Updated Wed., Aug. 3, 2022 at 9:32 p.m.

A bridge across Grapevine Creek at Chavies School Road in Perry County, Kentucky, is heavily damaged Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, following catastrophic flooding last week.    (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader/TNS)
A bridge across Grapevine Creek at Chavies School Road in Perry County, Kentucky, is heavily damaged Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, following catastrophic flooding last week.   (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader/TNS)
By Bill Estep Lexington Herald-Leader

CHAVIES, Ky. – For the last few days, Jennifer Myers and William Duff have used her father’s pickup truck to get to their jobs at a nursing home, but he needs it back soon to get to his own job, and they’re not sure what they’ll do after that.

They have a car, a sharp black Dodge Challenger, at their house on a hillside overlooking Grapevine Creek in Perry County.

The problem is they don’t have a bridge to drive it across.

The severe flash flooding that hit several Eastern Kentucky counties July 28 washed out the ground under one end of the one-lane structure, causing it to collapse.

County crews built wooden walkways over the gaps at either end of the bridge so residents can walk from their homes to the road, but it’s not clear when they’ll be able to get their cars out.

“It’s made it hard,” Myers said.

The flood that killed at least 37 people also wreaked havoc on electric service, waterlines, roads and bridges.

Crews have been able to restore electricity to well over half of the people who lost power, but fixing all the bridges damaged or destroyed by the flooding will be expensive and more time-consuming.

The focus so far after the flooding has been on searching for missing people and providing food and emergency shelter for people whose homes were destroyed, so local officials haven’t finished tallying all the infrastructure damage and estimated what it will cost to fix.

However, officials in the counties hit hardest by the flooding said scores of bridges had been damaged or destroyed.

Perry County Judge-Executive Scott Alexander said about 50 bridges were washed away or damaged. Knott County Judge-Executive Jeff Dobson put the number there at 60 to 70 county bridges and many more private bridges.

Breathitt County Judge-Executive Jeff Noble said dozens of bridges and culverts that people use to get across creeks to their homes were destroyed or damaged.

“We won’t be done in a year” fixing all of them, Noble said.

Many of the bridges serve only one or two homes, but damage to larger ones and to roads will also complicate getting students to school.

The topography in Eastern Kentucky helps explain the damage. Many places the steep-sided hills form a V, with a creek at the bottom and a narrow strip of level land on either side for the road and houses.

Places to build are limited, said Peter Youmans, pastor of Davidson Baptist Church in the Grapevine community in Perry County.

The church and his house are close to the creek. Both were damaged in last week’s flood, but there wasn’t really a choice on where to build them, Youmans said.

“You either live near a creek or you live up a mountain,” he said.

The topography also means floodwaters can boil up quickly in the narrow valleys and hollows, turning creeks that are normally small into destructive torrents.

The flood undermined one end of the main bridge to the church. It was blocked off Monday while waiting for someone to check whether it is still structurally sound.

“We’re just not going to take a chance.” Youmans said.

The church won’t be usable for some time anyway. Members gutted it, using chain saws to cut up the waterlogged pews because they were too heavy to carry out whole.

Jerry Wayne Stacy, the emergency manager in Perry County, said National Guard helicopter crews dropped water over the weekend to people who couldn’t get out because of damaged bridges, and planned to begin dropping packaged meals that the military uses – called MREs – on Monday.

The damaged bridges have disrupted a lot of schedules.

Linda Keith, who lives on a hill overlooking Troublesome Creek near the Knott-Perry County line, said she hadn’t been able to go to her job as a bank teller in Hazard since the flood.

Floodwaters undermined one end of the bridge to her home, leaving a gap several feet wide between the end of the pavement and the lane to her house.

“We’re trapped,” Keith said Monday.

Keith said she has lived at the spot for 33 years and the water had never gotten as high.

Keith said her boss at the bank has been very understanding and that her son Robert Keith, the fire chief in Hazard, has been bringing water and groceries. She and her husband, Michael, use a small wagon to pull the supplies up the steep drive.

Being marooned isn’t ideal, but Keith was quick to note their house wasn’t damaged and they didn’t lose any loved ones, as so many families nearby did.

“We’re a whole lot better off than others,” she said.

A woman looking for her missing father asked Keith if she could comb the creek bank below her house. The man was later found dead.

Keith’s neighbor, James Estep, is an equipment operator at a surface coal mine and was at work when the flood hit. The bridge was out by the time he got home.

That turned out to be fortunate. He was able to leave his Jeep at the end of the bridge by the road and can walk to it by crossing a pile of rock at the damaged end of the structure, so he can still get out to work.

Still, there is a concern about what would happen if his mother-in-law, who lives next door and has a pacemaker, has a health emergency.

“It’d be rough getting her across there,” he said of the gap between the drive and the end of the bridge.

The flood knocked down a large bridge to the Gospel Light Baptist Youth Center.

Republican state Rep. Chris Fugate, the pastor at Gospel Light Baptist Church in Hazard, which bought the center a year ago, said the church has been serving as a shelter and feeding site for displaced people so he hasn’t had time to go look at the bridge, which is in a community several miles from town.

He said the church used the center often for youth activities.

Fugate said he called Alexander, the judge-executive, the night of the flood to offer the youth center as a shelter, only to learn shortly after that the bridge to it had collapsed.

“That was a big lick to us” to lose access to it, he said.

The flood washed out the ground at one end of the bridge to Paul Johnson’s house in Chavies, in Perry County, and also demolished his daughter’s mobile home, which was in front of his house near the creek.

His house is on higher ground and the water didn’t get into it.

Johnson, 71, said his wife and grandson left the night of the storm before high water knocked out the bridge, but he’s been at his house since.

He had food and water, and volunteers also brought food, carrying it across the wooden walkway that a county work crew built over the 10-foot gap between his bridge and his yard.

His water service hasn’t been restored, so he collected rain water and groundwater to flush his toilet.

Johnson, retired from a job at a surface coal mine, said he will likely have to demolish his garage.

However, he can’t get a piece of heavy equipment across the failed bridge to do the job, and said there is no way to know when the bridge will be fixed given the staggering damage throughout the area.

But he was taking the situation in stride.

“There’s not really anything that we can do,” he said. “Accept it and do the best with what you’ve got. Thank the Lord we’re alive.”

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