BRUCE SCHREINER and
FLAT GAP, Ky. (AP) — Kevin Johnson last saw his son Scott wading through rushing floodwater with his 74-year-old grandmother on his back.
Scott Johnson had already saved his father, his uncle and sister as a flash flood ravaged the rural town of Flat Gap, and he returned to their cluster of trailers to carry his grandmother and teenage nephew to higher ground. He managed to wedge his nephew safely into a high tree as the flood raged out of control, but then the water washed Johnson and the grandmother away.
The grandmother, Willa Mae Pennington, was found dead Tuesday among debris from the family’s shattered mobile homes, Johnson County Coroner J.R. Frisby confirmed. Scott Johnson, 34, is one of two men who remain missing after the Monday afternoon flood. The fate of another four people also remains uncertain.
Rescue teams are going door-to-door to try to find them as desperate families wait for word.
Crews combing the wooded, mountainous terrain were hampered by swarming mosquitoes, soupy humidity and knee-deep mud.
“It just wears your legs out to walk,” said Gary McClure, the local emergency management director. “You walk from here to there in that mud and you’re ready to sit down. It just pulls you down.”
One man got stuck in the mud Wednesday morning, sank down to his hip and had to be rescued, police confirmed.
Authorities called off the search around 8 p.m. Tuesday, but resumed Wednesday morning after a convoy of National Guard vehicles and heavy equipment, including excavators and dump trucks, rolled toward the hardest hit area.
“They will be going back over the same areas again and starting new searches that we haven’t gone over so far. Every inch of all this debris has not been searched through yet,” Frisby said Wednesday. “Just haven’t had time.”
Two men were last seen being swept away by the rushing water, Kentucky State Police Trooper Steven Mounts said at a Wednesday morning press briefing. Police said another other four people reported missing by their families might be safely evacuated or stranded in their homes, without power or phone service.
Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear declared a state of emergency, giving local officials immediate access to state resources to assist in recovery efforts. Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen planned to fly over the area Wednesday to survey the extent of the damage.
Seven cadaver dogs are aiding in the search, which stretches more than 8 rugged miles from the town of Flat Gap south to Staffordsville — an area with 500 homes and 1,200 residents about 120 miles east of Lexington, police said at a news conference. Authorities estimate more than 150 homes were destroyed.
Hebert Hayden, 78, left home with his wife for a doctor’s appointment. While they were away, their mobile home was swept from its foundation and crashed nearby. They lost everything.
“All I can say is God was on our side,” he said. “If we would have been here, we would have drowned.”
The roads now are lined with empty foundations, where trailers or homes once stood. Cars are flipped upside down and trees uprooted.
Fifteen people were treated at a local hospital and released.
Frisby identified the second known casualty as Herman Eddie May Sr., 65. May was driving alone in a sport-utility vehicle when floodwaters from Patterson Creek started to sweep him away. He drowned after he got out and was swallowed by the rising water, Frisby said.
Doris Hardin watched the water rise from the window of her mobile home. Her lights flickered off, then her neighbor banged on the door, shouting for her to flee. With just seconds to react, Hardin sprinted up a hill as utility poles crashed down around her.
The water swept up Hardin’s trailer, her two cats still inside, and jammed it into a growing heap of mangled debris: other mobile homes, wrecked cars, snapped trees and downed power lines.
Hardin, now staying with her father, had not found her cats Tuesday afternoon, and feared she never would.
“I don’t think anything else is going to be salvageable,” she said.
Authorities worried that the muddy, rushing creek, still swollen Tuesday afternoon, had not finished its destruction.
Buddy Rogers, spokesman for Kentucky Emergency Management, said the ground is saturated from the overnight rains and heavy storms of the past several weeks. Many of the same areas are likely to be underwater again. The water-logged ground also threatens to topple more power lines, trees and utility poles in high winds.
“Any more rain at all is going to be detrimental. It will hurt us,” said Bobby Moore, a Johnson County 911 dispatcher. Moore said the flood washed away some narrow, back roads and left others clogged with fallen trees and debris, forcing rescuers to turn to all-terrain vehicles to reach homes and search for residents.
A helicopter hovered overhead to aid in the search, which included more than 100 rescuers from local departments, the state police, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Guard.
A shelter was opened at the Paintsville recreation center, though only a handful of people were there Tuesday afternoon. Most displaced residents were staying at hotels or with family, Moore said.