Court discusses flooding in county

Published 1:30 pm Tuesday, February 18, 2020

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Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley called on a number of department officials to speak during the Harlan County Fiscal Court meeting on Tuesday regarding the countywide flooding two short weeks ago.

“A lot of these people lost everything they had in an instant and it’s very sad to see and talk to these people who’ve experienced this loss and heartache,” Mosley said. “We were very fortunate that no one got killed in Harlan County as a result of this. Our damage assessment process has been ongoing.”

Mosley said the county received roughly 6 inches of rainfall within a three-day period, which caused the Cumberland River in Baxter to crest at 25 feet instead of the 16.5 feet predicted on the evening of Feb. 5.

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“The crest continued to be adjusted by the National Weather Service in Jackson throughout that night. We have conveyed our concerns about the inaccurate data that we were given, not only in this flood, but previous floods, to both the governor and congressmen staff,” Mosley said. “It’s very alarming, because when you say something is going to crest at 16.5 feet and it ends up cresting at 25 feet, it’s a pretty big difference. We’re trying to understand why in this day of numerous advancements and technology that this data can be that far off.”

Harlan County Emergency Management Director David McGill was asked to address the court first and he proceeded to discuss the different evacuations taking place across the county, including KY 413, Tremont and Dayhoit. McGill said he contacted the Corbin Fire Department, the Harlan County Rescue Squad and Harlan Fire Department to assist in the rescues happening across the county.

“The reason we asked for Corbin Fire Department to assist us was because we had rescues spread out all over the county. A water rescue is not something that is quick, so I knew we would need more resources,” McGill said. “Corbin Fire Department was more the gracious about coming in and helping. In total, all of the workers rescued 13 people from homes or cars driven into high water.”

McGill said the American Red Cross was also contacted to setup a shelter at the Harlan Baptist Church.

“At its peak, we had 21 people in the shelter. The shelter was opened for approximately eight days before it was closed,” he said.

McGill said 40 homes were assessed with major damage or had been destroyed, along with several other homes sustaining minor damage, 11 homes impacted by the flooding and 21 homes not impacted by FEMA standards.

“We’re not saying they didn’t receive water damage, but by FEMA standards and what we have to turn it, they were not affected,” he said.

McGill noted FEMA standards require a stick-and-mortar home to have at least 18 inches of water in the living quarters to be taken into the damage assessment and a mobile home to have water rise to its “underbelly” to be classified as major damage. If water enters the inside of a mobile home, FEMA standards declare the home as destroyed.

The American Red Cross gave out approximately 150 emergency supplies for locals impacted by flooding, and multiple other organizations were reported to donate “muck-out kits” as well.

“By the grace of God, we didn’t have any loss of life, and I’m very grateful for that. I think that’s our biggest takeaway from this,” McGill said. “Thankfully, we had a lot of help from other counties.”

Chad Brock, with the Harlan County Road Department, said he and others in his department had worked around 100 hours each by the time flood waters began to recede below dangerous levels.

“We pumped about 8 million gallons during the flood,” Brock said. “We also had five backhoes of our own going and four contractor’s. For the most part by Tuesday, we had it to where everyone would be able to get home again.”

Brock said his department is trying to clean up now and fix minor damages where they can, but they continue to prepare for the next amount of heavy rainfall.

Mosely said for the state transportation issues in Harlan County alone, there is an estimated $5 million in damages, with the head of the threshold for the state being $6 million, so the threshold for state “will be met without any issue.”

“I think it’s important to mention that Kentucky Emergency Management Michael Dossett told us on Thursday that the state director said the flood potential lasts for the rest of the month in the Commonwealth,” Mosley said. “Everybody needs to be weather aware because we may not be out of woods as far as severe flooding.”

Mosley said those impacted by the flooding will be able to continue setting out furniture and bagged trash so solid waste crews may be able to pick them up. Those who need such items picked up can call the Harlan County Recycling Center at 606-573-9423.

Flood plain coordinator Tony Felosi also addressed the fiscal court per Mosley’s request to discuss an issue with locals turning downstairs areas into apartments or living quarters when they were original built to lift a home out of the path of flood waters.

“Any time someone wants to construct in a flood plain, there is a permitting process that has to be gone through. There were a lot of homes that the corp of engineers bought out or raised years ago. However, some people have gone back and turned some of these into what I would describe as downstairs living rooms or man caves because they haven’t flooded in 10 years,” Mosley said.

He added there have been several people approach the fiscal court with flood damage they want to include in FEMA assessments, but “there’s no help there” because “that’s why those homes were raised to get them out of flood problems.”

“We’ve even been made aware of one instance where an apartment was developed under one of these living quarters, and two people had to be rescued that were about to drown,” Mosley said. “It’s blatant disregard to human life and to the flood plain ordinance, and we’re going to be moving forward to address these situations.”

Felosi said the spaces raised, whether they’re eight or 10 feet, are only supposed to be used for storage or parking. If the owner violates this, they are then in direct violation of the flood plain ordinance drafted by both the county and FEMA.

“It instantaneously becomes a civil offense,” Felosi said. “So we can go in and ask these people why the situation exists and give them a set amount of time to alleviate the situation. If they don’t, we could fine or jail them. I’m not saying we are jailing anybody, but we can lodge them for up to 30 days.”

He added the minimum fine for the offense if $100 per day that they do not comply.

“These were designed to be flow-through areas, but if you want to use it as a storage area or to park your car down there, that’s your own risk, but to develop them into living quarters is not what they are for,” Mosley said. “They were made to raise the living quarters out of the flood plain.”

Felosi said he will be working closely with state and local officials to make sure other residents are made aware of the flood plain ordinance in order to prevent possible future tragedies.