The third time an emergency alert awakened me, I reached for my phone. It was dark, darkest dark, the bright light just outside the window by my Hindman, Kentucky bed for the first time not providing 24-hour illumination of our tiny shared room. Power must be out, no surprise with all this rain. I laid there a minute, accounting: I’d come up from the gathering around 11 pm, and I’d vaguely been aware that in the hours since, both of my roommates had come in, too. I shook my phone awake to see it was just after 3. Then I held down the power-off button and watched the screen go black; no need to hear those alarms all night when there was nothing to be done about the unfortunate weather. And tomorrow was going to be a big day for all of us attending the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop, with morning classes and a highly anticipated Silas House/Little Bubby Child afternoon session and the week’s evening keynote with Dopesick’s Beth Macy. We all needed sleep.
6:50 am Morning arrived via a knocking on the door. Not a pounding, but an insisting nonetheless. There’d been a text for all of us staying in Preece, the house positioned highest on the campus of the Hindman Settlement School. Don’t drink from the tap. There is flooding and a fear gasoline has leaked into Hindman’s water.
“Is it okay to shower?” someone asked. Or maybe this was just something I wondered as I’d planned to get moving early, eager to finish breakfast and claim a quiet audit seat in the back of Nickole‘s 9 a.m. poetry class. That’s when several from our group stepped to the front porch and looked down the hill. There came gasps so deep as to suck air from the rooms of Preece’s first floor. Water was everywhere.
Another text. Tiny Troublesome Creek had risen wildly and fiercely in the hours between midnight and 3 a.m., and all over campus folks had been roused from their beds to wade into dark water to move cars, move possessions, move their bodies to higher ground. Many were collected just below us in Stucky, where they had spent the horrifying hours that followed watching water rise via quick, harsh snapshots of lightning.
There were twelve or thirteen of us in Preece, and for a while we all wandered around in dazed disbelief. I learned later there had been an attempt to reach us in the night but water rushed down the mountain with such force rescuers couldn’t get up the hill. I saw later that, in fact, portions of the road they tried to climb had washed out, chunks of asphalt littering the drive and one mudslide already established against the right front tire of the first in a string of relocated cars lining our steep drive.
Speculation became the game. We would not have class, surely. Would there be breakfast? Who had bottled water? Did the toilets work? One roommate, a reporter by trade—Chelyen geared up for rain and headed straight out, eager for a first-hand look at the situation. Kristi and I dressed then convinced each other it was best if we simply held tight. We were on high ground; we were safe; official word would surely come and with it needed clarity about this unexpected and equally unfathomable situation.
Wait, we did. And pace. And hypothesize, as texts came from other folks on campus providing more detail. The town of Hindman proper was under water. The Appalachian Artisan Center had collapsed. We were cut-off, the bridge connecting the Settlement School to Highway 160 breeched. Rachel’s truck was in the river; many other attendee vehicles sat in water or had been overrun and were completely trashed. Water had rushed the bottom levels of the Mike Mullins building, home of the school’s beautiful administrative offices (which I had just visited and commented it must be peaceful to work in such a lovely space) which were still flooded and in muddy shambles. As were the archives, the greatest of the campus’ potential losses, as they held irreplaceable literary treasures and papers and books and records of Appalachian history—the archives couldn’t even be reached. And our beloved footbridge, that sat so high above Troublesome Creek? It served as both a connector for the split campus and as the icon of the school, and had to be, what, 12 feet tall, including the girders? The footbridge had simply disappeared, whether still submerged or wiped away it was impossible to tell.
And the forecast was for rain. More rain, and more rain, and more rain.
8:45 am Eventually I put on my rain jacket to head down the hill. It was something I did with trepidation, literally descending into a flood I knew would be far worse than my conscious mind had dared allow. Still I needed information, and surely folks were gathered and that might give some indication as to what we should all do next. I turned the corner high over Hindman and the scene below gutted me. Water, so much filthy water, debris floating and the smell of gasoline so strong even at this elevation it was choking. People wandered about, dazed: my fellow writers and the Settlement School staff and workshop instructors, many of whom had been saviors and also witnesses to this disaster all through the terrifying night. There was an effort to get cars that had been relocated moved again, as now they blocked each other and also the mountain road I walked from Preece. Flooding had miraculously receded some and the bridge connecting us to Highway 160 was, for the moment, passable. But should we stay? It seemed sensible, and more sure, although there was no potable water, no electricity, no way to feed us. Should I go? If so, in what direction? My way here had been through Whitesburg, a route that meant miles and miles of two-lane mountain roads, many of which paralleled water. Some folks discussed heading for Hazard. What direction was that? Would it be safe? I couldn’t get a map to load on my phone; how would I ever figure which way to go in a state I didn’t know?
I walked back to Preece. I gathered my things. I loaded them into my car all the while thinking I may leave, I may not leave, I had made no decision. But others were talking about the potential for getting stuck up here, about the ongoing rain making mud a significant factor that at any moment could rumble to life, overtaking our steep drive and leaving us stranded. It would be impossible to get our vehicles out. I stood at my opened trunk and turned to look up. What was above us? All I could see were trees, but if something were to come barreling down that had the force to take out the road, then who’s to say this building…
And so I got in. I’ll just move my car to the mid-campus lot. This seemed a reasonable thing to do, so I started the engine, the wipers came to life, and I backed out slow then headed for the turn. We crept down the hill, my body on edge as the SUV dodged pot holes and widened cracks, good-sized clumps of uprooted asphalt. “CALL TIM,” I said without thinking, and then I prayed my phone would connect and that my husband had in fact been tracking the weather. We have 10 seconds, I said when he answered. Do I stay or do I go.
Go, he said, there was no hesitation. You have to get out of that flood.
I was at the bottom; in her running SUV sat my friend, Erin, a Kentucky native and Tennessee resident whom I knew took the same route toward home that I did. I waved and in pouring rain sweet Erin got out and came to my window. “The bridge is open and I’m going,” she said. “I’m heading for Hazard.”
“Okay, me too.”
It was a split-second decision filled with so much worry. A fellow Preece resident had gotten word The Weather Channel was reporting Hindman and Whitesburg both were under water; Hazard was flooded, too. “But I don’t know how to get there. So please don’t leave me.” I pulled up close behind her, and together we took out.
10:20 am Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, is how it felt, how can this be and is this a good decision and my roommates don’t even know I’m leaving. Nobody did. Then onto the Settlement School bridge we drove. We crossed the angry river—(There was Rachel’s truck! Deep in filthy water, and wedged tight, wedged defiant against a tree. Could that really be Tamela’s motorcycle? It was brand-spanking new; just a few days ago we’d looked at photos of their fantastic maiden ride through the Swiss Alps—all those twists and turns, the death-defying altitudes and good heavens, that breathtaking landscape! And here she lay now, caked in flood mud, the very picture—I had to acknowledge—of a valiant fighter forced to concede. Oh Troublesome—) and that’s when I realized I didn’t even have Erin’s contact info programmed into my phone.
We’d gone hardly a half mile when we skirted our first lane closure. Was it a landslide? There was flood debris piled high, and policemen or rescue workers and sundry others circled about as automobiles slowed to a crawl to make their careful way around the wreckage. I can see it now, in my head, although the entire event is a jumble. Were we over a river? Was there a hill to the left, from whence the pile might have come? I felt such shock and disbelief I cannot now recall, if it ever registered at all. I’m driving through a raging flood, is all I could think, a massive, devastating flood, and I don’t know where there is water and I don’t know which roads are out and I don’t know which route I should take or if there is even a right choice to make. Oh, and it occurred to me about then I might should check the gas gauge. It registered a quarter tank.
My phone rang; it was Erin. Thank God it was Erin, for now her number was captured in my phone. For the life of me I can’t remember why she called, but I distinctly remember feeling gratitude as it rooted in my soul: I was with a friend; she knew the way to Hazard; all that was required of me, at the moment, was to follow her and drive. Plus this road was a good one, a four-lane perhaps, although even that fact now escapes me. I should call Tim. I’m headed for Hazard. I need a route home. Can you find me a safe route home? Check The Weather Channel, Google Maps, whatever there is. I don’t know how on earth you go about figuring which ways might be flooded.
“Give me a minute,” he said.
Yes. Of course. Text me when you have it. I’m too stressed to remember and my phone still won’t load a map.
“You don’t have a map.”
No map at all.
Then, look! Just ahead! There was gas. And in a force of miracle, Erin saw me signal and pulled over alongside me to the station. The first readout said: PUMP OFFLINE. As did the second, as did the third, as did every dang pump dotting the lot. Of course this was the situation. My head accepted this rationally, but my heart sank a little as I followed Erin back to the highway. Again, we carried on.
Text, then a phone call. 80 West to 421 South to Duffield. It’s that simple. Just be sure you stay on 80 West. And DO NOT GO TO DOWNTOWN HAZARD. It is under water.
Ohmygod we were approaching Hazard and where was downtown and up there was another gas station and I think this was 80 West but also there is a sign to 80 W Exit Right and in haste I took it and in equal haste I dialed Erin just as her taillights faded. 80 West. Don’t we need 80 West? I think you had to turn to stay on 80 West. For a moment we discussed, and as we did my highway narrowed, and it began to descend, and then in no time—and before my unbelieving eyes—the highway I was on became a curvy two-lane backroad that wound along a river that disappeared right before me into the deep dark folds of a mountain.
I spotted a country church; there was a small gravel lot and I pulled in and put my car in park. “This cannot be right,” I said to Erin. I must have turned wrong or missed a sign or misunderstood Tim’s directions. I was thinking this, although I could not for the life of me figure how it could be and I was trying to remember to breathe Cathy, breathe.
“Should I come back?” asked Erin. “Should we try to find a place to meet?”
I don’t know where I am, I said.
There was a pause, a consideration. “The road I’m on is still good,” she said. “I feel like I should stay on it. Go toward Whitesburg. I’ll wait for you. I’ll pull over, do you want to come? I’ll wait.”
I could not process. I had to decide. I was afraid of Whitesburg, of the roads once we got there, of the “under water” comments we’d heard in Preece. I felt particular fear—something I only realize now—because this was the only route I could picture. Year after year I’d made my way to this same writers’ workshop, traveling South Carolina to North Carolina to Tennessee to Virginia. The last sixty miles took me Wise to Pound then across the border to Kentucky, where a curvy two-lane road through Whitesburg delivered me to Hindman. This was a route I knew; just four days ago I’d driven it. It had been a perfect summer day, the kind made for travel, and my heart had felt as light and bright as the green of the mountains, the gold of the sun, the frolic of the white puffy clouds as they bounced and teased their way along the tops of the old Appalachians.
“I’m afraid of Whitesburg,” I said. “But please, you do what you think is right. You know this state way better than I do.”
There was a pause, a deep consideration. And then: “Okay. If you’re sure.”
“I am,” I said. I was.
“I’ll check in,” Erin said.
Okay, sweet friend. Me, too. Thanks for getting me this far. You be safe.
10:55 am I was genuinely glad Erin had followed her gut, gone on her way, for it was not lost on me I had no perspective of any real value to contribute. I did not want to hold her back or redirect her in an unsafe way. Still I sat by that river as the next gut-wrenching realization washed over me. I was alone, in a car, on the side of a two-lane road in a region being ravaged by active flooding. I had no map, no sense of direction, no real understanding of the state’s geography. And I had no reliable information on which to base a decision about how best to avoid flooded towns or bridges or roadways. Mudslides were of particular concern, given both the natural topography of these mountains and the many areas unreclaimed after strip mining. Mudslides could appear anywhere, anytime, a live, ongoing threat, and for me, an immobilizing concern. It’s like I’m a character in an apocalyptic story, is what I thought, an insight no doubt rooted in the irony I was escaping a writers’ workshop. They’re always having to make split-second life-or-death decisions with no good information at all.
What should I do next?
(This became my refrain.)
What on earth do I do next.
I needed gas. I did know this, and there was that station, high on a hill, and I worked my way back until I found it. I had just re-holstered the nozzle when I noticed to my right there was a man also finishing up. I watched as he folded his wallet, stuffed it in his pocket and stepped in the direction of the station’s convenience store.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said, an interruption that surprised me as much as it did him. He turned and I approached. “Are you from around here?” I smiled, having given this exchange zero thought, and he looked at me quizzically. “I’ve just come from Hindman, and I’m trying to find a route out of the flood waters, and I’m not from Kentucky and I don’t have any idea which way to go.”
There was a moment that felt like an eternity as he stared and I stared and both of us waited. Was there a woman in his car? I seem to remember wondering. Does she know there is a flood? Does anybody in this crowd realize there is a flood?
He nodded, big praises, he nodded. “Let’s step over here,” he said, and I followed. “Where is it you’re trying to get to?”
“North Carolina,” I said. “Near Asheville. But don’t worry about that. I don’t care how I get there, or how long it takes, I just want the safest route out of the flood. Once I get out, I’ll figure how to get home from there.”
Again he nodded; I think he may have looked at his phone.
We discussed a few details. Or rather, I’m sure I babbled on until decisively, confirmedly he said: “Hal Rogers Parkway. You’ll want the Hal Rogers Parkway to London. Then 75 South to Knoxville, and I-40 to Asheville, or wherever it is you’re going.” He looked up at me. There was not a smile; he was full-on earnest.
Knoxville, I thought, good lord but that seemed a long way out of my way but then I had already said it didn’t matter how long, how far, but only how safe.
“Hal Rogers Parkway,” I repeated. Again he nodded. “That’s not a two-lane road, is it? I don’t want a two-lane road. I’m worried about mudslides. I hear there are mudslides. Hal Rogers? You think Hal Rogers is the safest way to go?”
“I do,” he said. “I can’t speak to it specifically, of course, but I think you’ll be fine. A bit of water runoff, I’d say, but it’s a good road. You should be fine.”
I nodded. I was incredibly grateful. I was so nervous, still. “How do I get there?”
He pointed, and I turned to look and it was easy to see since we were high on a hill. “That intersection. See it there? At the second light, go left. That’s the Hal Rogers Parkway.”
Praises again that sounded easy; I pointed and repeated nonetheless. “That traffic light right down there. Go through it. Go under the overpass. Then at the next light, take a left. And that will be the Hal Rogers Parkway.”
“Yes,” he said. “And be sure you get on the Parkway. There’s an old road this replaced, and you do NOT want to get on that one.”
Been there, done that, I thought. “I’m so grateful to you,” I said. “Thank you so, so much.”
I buckled in. I pulled from the pump and pulled over to the side, where first I programmed Erin’s name to match her number. Then I disconnected and reconnected my phone and car via bluetooth. (They hate each other; this was a vital victory.) I organized myself for distraction-free driving, and I put my car in D.
11:25 am Over and over I confirmed: Hal Rogers Parkway, Hal Rogers Parkway, Hal Rogers Parkway. I had found it; I was on it, a few miles to go and I’d be in London. A few miles to go and I’d be out of danger. Then came the first mile marker: LONDON: 60 MILES. Oh. Good. Lord. Sixty miles! How had I not asked this? How had I not prepared myself for another hour, in this rain? I looked in my rear view—at least there was a truck following, at least there was this: one other human with faith in the HRP.
Still, I could not relax.
Sixty miles, just drive. Sixty miles, and all would be well.
My phone rang, it was Kristi, the roommate I’d neither hugged nor told I was leaving. “Where are you? How are you? Is everything okay?”
Oh, friend, I said. I thought I might cry. Where in heaven’s name are you?
She was headed for Nashville; she explained her route but I couldn’t picture it. She’d left later than I, and she offered updates of other writer friends pulled from threads of last minute, frenzied conversations. In came another call; it was Erin; let me grab that, I’ll call you back.
YOU WERE RIGHT ABOUT WHITESBURG, is what Erin said. I could hear the rain and the slapping of the wipers and her panic. She’d gotten close, but she’d had to turn back, she understood there were quite a few from the workshop who’d had the same experience. But she was okay. She was coming back to Hazard; she was heading for London; London is where her mother lives.
“I’m on the parkway now,” I offered. “It’s been fine so far.”
“It’s a good road,” she said.
It was a good road, thank heavens. It was a very, very good road.
12:40 pm LONDON
There were cars. There were stores. There were people everywhere, going about their business. For the second time that day I wondered if these were folks who even knew there was flooding. I saw a gas station and pulled in not for fuel but because I needed a breath, a moment, a beat. I parked. My hands gripped the wheel still, and I bowed my head and prayed. Then I lifted my eyes, my heart. and I willed my hands let loose. Eventually they did, and when they did I saw they were shaking.
It’s okay, It’s okay, I’m okay.
I had made it to London. It was all going to be okay.
A trip that took four hours on Sunday took 8.5 hours on Thursday. There were many reasons, in addition to a route that took me via Knoxville instead of Kingsport. Torrential rains and fierce lightning awaited on I-75, and a thousand gigantic trucks and I spent much of that time traveling 15 miles per hour or less, and often just sitting. With great intention I took my time. I stopped a lot. When the rain subsided partway along I-40, I celebrated with a big bag of white cheddar cheese popcorn and a large (pellet ice) cherry coke zero. My friends and I checked in on each other, over and over and over.
I do not discount the impact of my flood experience, I would like to state that here. It was scary and nerve-racking and the jitters come even now when I see the skies turn dark, or when there’s a down-pouring of rain. But the devastation and loss suffered by so many in Eastern Kentucky in that massive 1000-year flood is beyond my comprehension. I didn’t realize it while making that drive, but getting home with access to television and video and photographs—the horrors those good people faced in the dark of that horrific night, and in the heartbreaking days to come—it overwhelmed me and my fellow writers such that we gathered for a check-in Zoom that was filled with such raw emotion we literally ended with a meditation and a one-by-one exit blessing.
And then to see the outpouring of support, so much of it from among neighbors in that region, in the days that have followed. It has been humbling.
And I must mention the heroes at the Hindman Settlement School. They are our friends as well as the hosts of the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop, and they not only saved lives by banging on doors in the dark of terrifying night but have worked tirelessly since. It’s impossible how quickly they got the campus in shape, ready to serve Knott County as a community base: to distribute water and food and supplies; to house families and pets who have been displaced; to feed those who were, and are, hungry. They have done all this while facing the realities of addressing what they, personally, have lost, as well as all that has been destroyed or damaged by flood waters on the Settlement School campus. This includes the complete devastation of their own offices and records, as well as the significant damage to and the tremendous content losses of several other historic campus buildings. In short order they mobilized an army of experts and volunteers who helped save what could be saved of the school’s vast collection of irreplaceable literary and Appalachian life archives. The very thought of this, at this moment, gives me chills.
The whole crazy experience left me with so many lessons, chief among them these.
Climate change is our apocalypse. “Natural” disasters are coming with more and more regularity, and if we don’t do things to turn the proverbial tide, in time every one of us will face what the good people of Eastern Kentucky are going through now, in one dark form or another. Being in one was terrifying, and it felt apocalyptic, and that is an experience I hope to never go through again.
When everything is confusing, and you don’t know what you should do, focus on the next small decision. That’s where my nature took me, and as I write this, and as I consider it, I am really, really grateful.
Oh, and this.
Carry a map. A printed map. My dad gave me a fine Road Atlas when I went away to college (which I’ve long since trashed), and you’d better believe I won’t travel without one again. Here’s a quick link to the one I’ve ordered if that is helpful to you.
Thank you for being here, thank you for reading The Daily Grace, thank you for hanging in through this very long story. I cherish you as part of our little community and I wish for you love, light, security, and more grace than your sweet heart can hold.
PS: If you’d like to support the efforts of those who are doing so much for ravaged communities, the Hindman Settlement School is a wonderful option for donations. Learn more and see photos of the devastation here.
PPS: Thanks to Loren Crawford for her permission to use the image at the top of this post. It’s pulled from a video she took standing at the Settlement School chapel, not far from Preece (and my bedroom). It’s the first look at the flooding as the sun rose over Hindman.