Flooding blights Red River Gorge

Written By: Erin Albright, Staff Writer

In Southeast Kentucky, extreme rainfall caused significant flooding of the Red and Kentucky Rivers early last week.

Days of rain, ice and snow storms dumped four to seven inches of water across a large portion of the state, pushing rivers to water levels not seen for decades. This was a record amount of rainfall for the area.

Flooding began on March 1 in the Red River Gorge area of Kentucky. In response, Governor Andy Beshear declared a State of Emergency in 13 counties, while at least 49 counties issued additional disaster declarations. Fast-moving floodwaters from the Red River gave residents little time to gather their belongings before fleeing.

Beshear called it “some of the worst flash flooding” he had ever seen.

The south fork of the river at Booneville was observed at nearly 43.5 feet, setting a historic high. The river must be over 21 feet to be declared in a flood stage. Estimates projected the flooding to be second only to water levels seen in 1978.

Firefighters worked for nearly 72 straight hours during the latter part of last week, driving in boats to rescue stranded individuals. Over 80 people were rescued last Monday. As the Lee County Health Department lost power, COVID-19 vaccines had to be rescued and transported to a facility in Wolfe County so as to not expire. The Kentucky National Guard also provided support to those affected.

The flooding has swamped residences, caved in roads and damaged county water systems. As residents return to their homes and businesses, they are being directed to report flood losses and damages to their insurance carriers immediately, with photo documentation. 

In some areas, people are living in tents as they make repairs to their water-logged properties. Many streets saw six to seven feet of water.

Photo courtesy of Flickr

“We expected this,” Natasha Lacy, public information officer for District Seven of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, said. 

“We were prepared, actually, because we knew that after the large snowfall and winter event that we had there would be significant rainfall as well,” she added.

Besides water damage to homes, streets and businesses, officials worried about possible erosion to a dam located in the north fork. 

Lee County Director of Emergency Management Jon Allen explained that flooding in the north fork was causing erosion on the dam, pushing the water into bordering neighborhoods and businesses. 

“A lot of good people have their life investment in these businesses. We’re gonna rebuild. We’ll do that, and we’re expecting FEMA will declare a disaster, so we’ll work through all of that part. We’ll come back stronger. It’s just gonna take us a little time,” Allen said.

A GoFundMe page titled “Help Red River Gorge 2021 Flood Disaster” raised over $60,000 for those affected. The Eastern Kentucky Mutual Aid Community Fund also created a website to connect people to resources, including gift cards to local eateries, cleaning supplies and temporary housing. Individuals are asked to contact Red Cross Disaster Relief to assist those in need.

In the coming days, Beshear will be asking President Joe Biden to declare this event a disaster so that the state can be given federal relief and assistance in clean-up.

Flood warnings remained in effect until Wednesday, and the order barring all non-essential travel has since been lifted.