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After floods, Kentucky struggles with a new challenge: Clean water

Floodwaters along KY-15 on July 28 in Jackson, Ky. (Arden S. Barnes/For The Washington Post)

HAZARD, Ky. — The water bottles have arrived by the thousands.

They sit, still in their plastic cases, stacked high in front of churches, schools and in parking lots. They pack the back seats of many sedans, the beds of pickup trucks and any available space on all-terrain vehicles.

Portable, potable water has become vital in some sections of southeastern Kentucky, a region that had much of its water delivery infrastructure destroyed by devastating flash flooding that killed at least 37 and displaced hundreds.

“You can’t clean anything without water,” said Donald “Happy” Mobelini, the mayor of Hazard, a city of about 5,000 at the center of the flooding.

Gallon jugs of water are almost as ubiquitous as bottles. In recent days, tanker trucks full of water have been brought in. But the region needs more.

Almost as soon as the donated water arrives, it’s used by thousands who need it to bathe, drink and wash off the thick coats of mud that floodwater left on the insides of businesses, homes and clothes.

After the heaviest rain subsided last week, much of Hazard was without electricity and running water. Over the past few days, power and water have been restored a few thousand at a time. Mobelini said that much of the county’s south side should have their water restored by the end of the week.

But he said he could not give a timeline for when water would be back for many of the counties’ outlying rural communities, which suffered much of the worst destruction.

“The pipes are gone,” Mobelini said of those areas. “We’ve got, like, five teams from different cities in here to help us assess, but we’re going to have to rebuild the whole infrastructure, so I don’t know how long that’s gonna take.”

“We’re not anywhere near recovered,” Mobelini said. “We need those big corporations to step up and really, truly help with more than water.”

PHOTOS: Kentucky flooding claims at least 37 lives

Much of the region’s tough terrain may challenge reconstruction efforts. The small community of River Caney, which occupies a narrow valley a county over from Hazard, is reachable by a single state highway.

Before the flood, a blacktop road ran through much of the community. On Wednesday, large portions of that road appeared as if it had been reclaimed by the surrounding hills. Broken power lines hung low while crushed cars, discarded sheds and houses populated the roadside. The semi-turbid waters of Caney Creek gurgled down from a nearby hillside.

The rain last week came so quickly that Caney Creek jumped its banks and carried some homes down the valley. The home of Lurain Noble was uprooted in the flood, she said near a pile of cinder blocks where her home once stood. Unlike others, her house was still visible but was a few yards down the street and obviously damaged.

To escape the rushing current, the 54-year-old Noble and her family struggled up a nearby hillside, which had become a muddy slip-and-slide. They waited there for the waters to subside, and she said she had been staying with her nephew ever since. However, she has been returning to her home daily, trying to determine what’s salvageable and at times using the waters of the creek that caused so much damage.

“I take my stuff to the creek and wash it off. It’s got mud that thick,” Noble said, spreading her fingers a few inches apart.

Years ago, Noble said she and others in the community got their water from nearby wells. They did that until the water coming from their taps turned black. She blamed a nearby mining operation that was blasting away layers of mountain to get to coal beneath.

“When they lit those shots off up there, it jars your whole house,” Noble said, adding that they had since switched to piped-in public water, which the community has been without since last week.

Noble said she has heard nothing definite on when that water service could be back.

Strangers have repeatedly come through in recent days, handing out jugs and cases of water. Noble said some of her neighbors who have stayed behind have used it to bathe and clean. Others haul in bags of ice to help preserve milk and eggs in coolers.

“They’ll bounce back,” Noble said. “We don’t give up over here. I won’t. I’m coming back home. I think everyone back through here will tell you that.”

After major floods, Kentucky grapples with the damage left behind

Others have gotten creative to meet their community’s new water needs. In the city of Hindman, in hard-hit Knott County, the Hindman Settlement School has revived a more self-reliant water delivery system.

The school, founded in 1902 to educate the children of mining families, was for much of its history getting water from a well, pump and cistern on a nearby hill, said Will Anderson, the school’s executive director. In recent years, the school switched to getting its water from the city.

“They don’t think there’ll be water here, two weeks to a month,” Anderson said on Tuesday. “So we had the idea of, well, maybe our old system still works.”

Maintenance workers got the well up and running late in the day on Monday, he said.

“We went over to the faucet outside of our building, turned it on, and for the first five minutes it looked like chocolate milk,” Anderson said. “I mean, it was just thick and ugly. But after running for about five minutes, it’s coming out relatively clear.”

The water is not potable but can be used to flush toilets and, most important, clean out homes. Anderson said they want to bring in an expert who can determine whether it’s safe for showering, but in the meantime residents can come and fill large tanks with the water for use in cleaning.

“That’s been a huge relief for a lot of people, because we had gone probably five days without water,” Anderson said. “And so, it’s simple things like that are just like a breath of fresh air.”