FLOODS IN THE MOUNTAINS
By Jeemes Akers
“A spirit of practicality had come to her aid. It was only human. When the earthquake stops, when the flood recedes, when the volcanic dust settles or the guns fall silent, the survivors pick their way through the rubble and debris and wreckage. A chair leg here, a first communion certificate or a bundle of love letters there. The flotsam and jetsam of the old ways—the ways that will never return.”
The Apothecary’s House
Early this morning Imogene stirred me from my sleep with bad news. Four solid days of rainfall in eastern Kentucky had caused widespread flooding in the small creeks and mountain “hollers”, rivers were cresting at near historic highs, mountain towns like Hindman, Hazard, and Drift are underwater. Her youngest sister Donna barely escaped at 4:30 in the morning, only having time to grab a few clothes, a box of important documents, and a couple photographs. According to a cellphone video we saw yesterday was one of the house where Ima’s family has lived since the late 1970s. Only the green roof could be recognized: the house was submerged in a sea of brown, brackish mud waters.
That was yesterday. Today on the news the reports of at least 25 dead during the flash floods and heartbreaking videos of houses and towns underwater. And the situation could get worse. The forecast calls for more rain in the days ahead. With the ground saturated, and many roads impassable, the danger of mountain slides grow by the day. Moreover, when the swollen creeks join rivers downstream in places like Martin—our youngest daughter was born in the small hospital there—the locals are bracing for worse floods to come.
One newscast this morning showed precipitation amounts for the area. On a list with other names I recognize—Buckhorn and Oneida among them—was tiny Pippa Passes, where over nine inches of rain fell. Many of you who are regular readers of my missives will recognize Pippa Passes, home of remote Alice Lloyd College, nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, where Ima and I spent several years. Video footage available on social media shows parts of the campus underwater as well. The usually placid Caney Creek that meanders through campus has been turned into a raging torrent by the rainfall: the force of the water has chewed away large chunks of the campus road.
Ima and I feel so helpless so far away in central Florida. We are making plans to cut short things here and make a mad dash back to the mountains to help clean and pitch …
Each cellphone call brings closer the human dimensions of the tragedy: one relative tells us how she has been trying in vain to contact relatives; the mind-numbing account of an 82-year-old lady washed out of her trailer and snagged in the limbs of a tree; and, my good friend located near flooded Hazard who told me the creek in their holler roared all night long, washing out parts of their road closer to the highway.
All this brings back memories of 1984—almost forty years ago now—when a flash flood in the mountains washed out a nearby railroad embankment and flooded Hazel Bates’ house (Ima’s mom) with water that was above the doors. I can remember the heartbreaking scene vividly: the putrid smells of mud and trash, what seemed to be millions of worms deposited in the yard and driveway, and the inside chaos—waters rushing out the doors deposited large pieces of furniture and left them in cluttered piles, like a bomb had gone off inside.
At the time, Madonna was able to approach a local volunteer fireman and rescue worker to get us first in line (or close to it) for a fire engine water tanker to blast the outside and inside of the house to rinse away the mud, dirt and debris. We pulled up the mud-water-saturated carpet, tore down damaged walls, and threw away a lifetime of memories. All gathered in a huge trash heap near the road.
Mom and dad came down from Ohio to help. Several of my campus friends stopped by to help—Carl Sode put in a new commode in the bathroom. We spent hours pulling up nails, repairing floors, ceilings and walls, trying to restore the house to what it used to be.
This time feels different. Donna says she’s not going back. (But she sounded much more optimistic when we talked to her this morning; the video same time shows the garage and house interiors much the same as we remember from 1984). A federal emergency has been declared and Donna said the governor flew overhead in a helicopter. The family and friends’ effort over the next few days will focus on getting the clutter out of the house and perhaps preserving a few larger items that may be restored. In all likelihood, the house will stand empty afterward.
But we’ll see.
The death of dreams is always difficult to watch.
We are so grateful that Donna escaped with her life.
The whole episode further reminds me of a tape-recorded sequence on Leo Buscaglia’s “Love Tape” that I used to play for my college and high school students in calmer days at Pippa Passes. Leo recounted traveling to northwestern Cambodia and visiting the people near the Tonle Sap Lake, a part of the Mekong River system and the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. The region flooded regularly. He was amazed that they carried all their possessions in a simple knapsack on their backs. “They taught me,” Leo explained on the tape, “that what truly matters is human life; not the possessions we accumulate along life’s way.”
In our material-oriented culture that simple truth tends to become buried beneath our quest for larger houses, bigger yards, more comfortable living circumstances, and houses crammed full of “stuff” we never really need.
It is my sincere hope that none of you reading this missive will ever experience the tragedy of a devastating flood, earthquake or fire. Such events have a way of changing your perspective on life.
As a final note, Alice Lloyd College and the June Buchanan School have experienced more than their fair share of weather-related disasters in recent years. I have written previously about the destruction to the campus high school facility caused when the mountain behind it slipped and flooded all the classrooms and auditorium. Only an ambitious fund-raising effort and generous gifts of over $3 million enabled a rebuilding and restoration project. For the small college, the costs of repair resulting from the latest flooding will be enormous. Please pray about it: if you want to be of help you can send a check c/o Margo Sparkman or Joshua Baker at the Development Office, Alice Lloyd College, 100 Purpose Road, Pippa Passes, KY 41844. (Both Margo and Josh are regular readers of my missives).
Likewise, the campus, farm and athletic fields at tiny Oneida Baptist Institute have been slammed by flooding caused by the unprecedented torrential rainstorms. I taught at OBI for a short time as well. I still love the school and its special mission. Please send personal donations c/o President Larry Allen Gritton Jr., Oneida Baptist Institute, 11 Mulberry St., Oneida, KY 40972. (Larry Gritton Jr. remains a close personal friend as does his father Larry, a lifelong spiritual mentor, gifted teacher and fantastic coach).
As for Ima’s sister who has lost a house and for the many friends and family adversely affected by the latest round of flooding in eastern Kentucky, we continue to covet your thoughts and prayers.
And above all, embrace the personal specialness of God’s gift of life …
 See Jeemes Akers, “The Love Tape” (missive) March 2021.