Large portions of Appalachia have been turned into water and mud wastelands as a result of 5- to 8-inch rains abetted by the scars of strip-mining.
New records for flooding and destruction were set, with some reports claiming that as many as 23,000 and been driven from their homes in six Southeastern states, 19 flood-related deaths, and tens of millions of dollars damage.
The flood toll, coupled with deaths of 69 in the crash of a Southern Airlines jet in a hailstorm and the deaths of 22 in tornadoes that swept the South, pushed the three-day count of weather-connected fatalities to at least 110.
Large towns in the coal-mining regions of eastern Kentucky were covered by water to the second floor of buildings Tuesday, causing people to take refuge in trees and in the hills in their shirtsleeves in the snowy, freezing weather.
With the floodwaters receding in most areas but with some small towns and hollows still isolated from all communication, residents emerged from their hastily taken shelters to walk through inches of mud in search of relatives and to survey the damage to homes and businesses spruced up with money from the recent coal boom.
As federal and state disaster aid workers rushed water and medical supplies to towns in eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, south-western Virginia and eastern Tennessee, government officials and citizens' groups began to try to figure out why - despite a decade of redevelopment by a score of public agencies - Appalachia was still as vulnerable as ever to the ravages of nature that have plagued it for so long.
Citizens who saw Monday's and Tuesday's 5-to 8-inch rains rage from the mountaintops in oceanlike waves blamed he quick runoff directly on the strip-mining that has denuded watersheds of their soil and trees, although government officials were more cautious. But all agree that strip-mining's balding of the hills and silting of the streambeds contributed to worsening the flood.
"Areas that have strip-mining as a general rule are like a parking lot," said Robert Bell, secretary of the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection, which supervises strip-mine reclamation. "It's natural that water will run off asphalt faster than sod."
Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Conrad Ripley of the Huntington, W. Va., district, which has jurisdiction over the hard-hit areas on the Kentucky-West Virginia border, conceded, "Faster runoff is in the picture somewhere, but we don't have the exact figures at the present time."
Angry residents in Pikeville, Ky., who had turned the once-decaying coal town of 5,600 into the nation's smallest federally designated model city, blamed the Corps of Engineers for falsely promising that three upstream dams on the Big Sandy River would save the town from the flooding that ruined new downtown businesses and covered homes, even the exclusive Lower Bowles subdivision, which is home for the "instant hill-billy millionaries" who cashed in on the 1973-74 coal boom.
"We took for granted that the Fishtrap Dam would hold it," said South Central Bell Operator 244, one of the few persons who can be reached by phone in the stricken city. "The weather bureau had said the water would crest and not flood, so I wasn't in a hurry to do anything, but then it kept coming up and up," he said, as he stuck to company policy that prevents operators from revealing their names over the phone.
Corps of Engineers spokesman Ripley contends the dams did their job and prevented even more damage. "They were designed on the basis of the hundred-year flood of record. We simply had a record storm that went beyond their capacities," he said. The 1957 flood set the previous record.
Ripley conceded that Fishtrap Dam above the city would have held more water if it were not as silted up with strip-mine debris, but not a significant amount, he claims. Silting of the dam by strip-mining as of 1973 had reduced the dam's useful life by 30 years, from 100, according to corps studies. "More dams would have helped to some degree," Ripley added.
In the Kentucky River watershed the corps said the Carrs Ford Dam took three feet from the predicted 35.2-foot water credit at the city of Hazard, but at Harlan and the downstream cities on the Cumberland River near the Tennessee-Virginia border the river set new flood levels, ignoring the nearly complete Martins Fork Dam and floodwalls.
In Pineville and Harla - the former town covered with water to the tops of its buildings on Tuesday and the latter patrolled by today by National Guardsmen to prevent looting - citizens said they had little warning of the disaster. They credited coordinated work by citizens band radio operators and radio stations with saving live in the towns.
In Pikesville, the only means of communication was to go to one of the two local radio stations and ask them to broadcast messages about flood conditions.
Furious sandbagging atop a floodwall saved the downtown section of Barbourville, Ky., from inundation by the raging Cumberland River.
The crest of the Cumberland bore down on Williamsburg, Ky., which had no flood wall. A National Weather Service official said the predicted crtst early Thursday "should get most of the city, except Cumberland College, which is on a hill."
The Red Cross set up 26 shelters in Virginia and West Virginia to house and feed the homelsss. Kentucky health officials set up clinics to administer Tetanus shots and appealed for additional Tetanus vaccine.
Kentucky officials have already assessed the damage from the flood at $100 million - a figure that is expected to rise quickly as rescue teams reach areas still isolated by road slides and water. That figure does not include the paralysis for at least a week, and perhaps longer, of the region's coal industry, which produces $30 million worth of coal each week.