HE AWOKE THAT MORNING to the heaviest rain he’d ever seen.
That’s how Ron Oplinger of the Partridge community in Letcher County began his reply when I asked about his memories of the disastrous flood that struck Letcher and 12 other eastern Kentucky counties in late July 2022.
His home on the south side of Pine Mountain was not flooded, but the nearby Cumberland River was already threatening some neighboring properties when he stepped out his door. Fourteen to 16 inches of rain fell in four days in some counties, and a weather observer at Lake Buckhorn in Perry County recorded 8 inches in 24 hours. A Federal Emergency Management Agency representative said an estimated 8,700 homes were either destroyed or seriously damaged.
Oplinger, a consumer-member of Cumberland Valley RECC and a retired conductor/brakeman with what now is CSX Transportation, is also the longtime pastor of Lewis Creek Pentecostal Church in Letcher County. For months now, the church has partnered with the nonprofit assistance group Meridzo Center of Lynch to help flood victims rebuild in Harlan, Perry and Letcher counties.
Among Oplinger’s recollections:
A young man at Isom told of being awakened at 2 a.m. when his mobile home began moving. He waded into the floodwaters hoping to reach his mother’s house 50 to 70 feet away, but was swept off his feet. He caught hold of a black walnut tree and was able to climb above the floodwaters as his house trailer disappeared downriver in the darkness.
An Army veteran and retired railroad laborer who was bedfast and unable to speak was in his mobile home near Whitesburg, along with his wife, when they were trapped by floodwaters. A passing utility crew was able to get a kayak off a neighbor’s porch and move the man to higher ground, from which he later was moved to the porch of a nearby church. Oplinger says the man spent 12 hours lying in the kayak before an ambulance could reach him. The couple lost everything, including a car the wife had just bought.
An 88-year-old woman was trapped in her house until rescuers reached her the next day. They found her sitting in a recliner, still alive but with only her head sticking out above the floodwaters. She told them she had been in the recliner 14 hours.
A friend who was rescued by boat before losing his home in the flood told Oplinger that, in 30 minutes, he saw everything he’d ever worked for go down the river.
Hundreds of such stories are left untold—the saddest of which rest with the families of the 45 who died as a result of the flood, and among others who have lost hope.
Oplinger laments that without help, most who were left homeless will likely have to relocate back to the flood-prone areas. He is hopeful that sites on higher ground—perhaps on reclaimed strip-mined lands—may be considered for affordable, permanent housing.