What We Know About The Victims In The Kentucky Flooding

When the rain came, Diana Amburgey was in her double-wide trailer across from the gas station she managed in Hindman, Ky., packing for a Florida vacation. At 65, she had never learned to swim and was terrified of water, but her family had managed — “for the first time in forever,” her daughter said — to talk her into taking a family trip to the beach.

Jeanette Johnson, 65, was at home with her 12 cats in Clayhole, Ky., in the house she had grown up in, a rickety place with outdoor plumbing. She was disabled and her eyesight was failing, but her church was nearby and she had steadfastly refused her family’s entreaties to leave.

Betty Jean Estep, 67, was with her son in Isom, Ky., in the trailer that her boyfriend of 17 years gave her. As the floodwaters rose, she and her son fled uphill until she turned to him in the dark and said she could not breathe. Go get help from the neighbors, she instructed.

By the time help arrived, Ms. Estep had collapsed on the wet ground. Forty-five minutes of CPR could not save her life.

As rescue crews worked through a fresh onslaught of rain on Sunday, straining to restore power and water and recover bodies, the death toll from the floods that have ravaged southeastern Kentucky stood at 28 and was expected to climb.

Gov. Andy Beshear has repeatedly said that the authorities were expecting to find bodies for weeks to come. “Many of them swept hundreds of yards, maybe a quarter-mile-plus from where they were lost,” he said on Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

County by county and home by home, local coroners have begun to confirm deaths and stunned families have begun to mourn. The victims have ranged from octogenarians to toddlers.

“People look down on Appalachians, and some people are saying the hillbillies got what they deserved,” said Tonya Gibson, a nurse practitioner in Knott County, who said she knew at least three families grieving loved ones. “But it’s not like that. These were good people, God-fearing people that loved their neighbors and looked out for each other. People don’t realize how much has been lost.”

Here is what we know so far about some of the victims.

Nellie Mae Howard, 82

Joe Engle, the sheriff of Perry County, interrupted his search for flood victims over the weekend to bury a loved one of his own in Chavies, Ky. Sheriff Engle, who is a pastor, said that walking by faith, rather than by sight, would be the theme of his sermon because that was how his great-aunt, Nellie Mae Howard, had lived.

During the storm, Ms. Howard sheltered at the home of her daughter, Patricia Collins, according to Angel Campbell, Ms. Collins’s daughter. But at around 1 a.m. on Thursday, Ms. Campbell saw a Facebook post from a cousin saying that the flood had submerged the enclave of homes where her mother lived.

As the hours passed, she learned that her mother had been found and was alive. Her grandmother’s body was discovered Friday morning.

Ms. Campbell said her mother told her that water had rushed into the living room, setting furniture and appliances afloat and eventually washing Ms. Collins and Ms. Howard out of the home. Ms. Collins became wedged up against a neighbor’s home, with loose lumber piled on top of her. It took nearly two hours for neighbors to dig her out, Ms. Campbell said.

When a search party located Ms. Howard’s body, her grandson, Chris Collins, lifted her up, Ms. Campbell said. He checked for a pulse, knowing he would find none, and cleaned the mud from her face. Then, he waited with her for hours until a rescue boat arrived.

Among Ms. Howard’s journals, the family said, were lyrics to a song by the Gaither Vocal Band carefully written in her handwriting: “When my eyes are closed in death with my Jesus I’ll be at rest. Then you’ll know I’m satisfied.”

James Miller, 73

The day before the flood hit, Ashley Collins turned 22 years old and had a video call with her adoptive parents, James and Carol Miller. Mr. Miller asked how his grandson was doing, baby-talking to Ms. Collins’s 4-month-old.

Ms. Miller, 72, sang him “You Are My Sunshine,” a reference to new pajamas covered in suns she had bought him. The next day, as the skies opened, Ms. Collins learned that her mother had tried to carry her father out to their SUV in an attempt to escape the flooding but that water flooded the vehicle and carried it away. Bed-bound for the past year after a botched back surgery, Mr. Miller could not move on his own, his daughter said.

As of Sunday afternoon, the vehicle had not yet been found, nor had Ms. Miller. But Mr. Miller’s body had been found.

“He was the best dad anyone could ask for,” Ms. Collins said. “He was constantly giving and had the biggest heart.”

Chance, Neveah, Riley Jr. and Madison Noble

All four of the Noble children were quiet and shy at first, but the closer they became to someone, the more they would talk, said Brandi Smith, their aunt, who confirmed their deaths after they were swept away from their parents in floodwaters in Knott County.

Madison, 8, was the oldest. She loved teddy bears and playing with Barbies, and she had started to love going to school. Riley Jr., 6, could talk about dinosaurs all day and loved playing with cars.

“They were the sweetest kids you could ever meet,” Ms. Smith said.

Neveah, 4, would sing all day long. When she was not singing, Ms. Smith said, she would “talk your head off.”

And Chance, who had just turned 2, was a “mommy’s boy” who loved his playtime.

“They loved their mommy and daddy and they always wanted to be right with them,” Ms. Smith said. “I miss my sweet little nieces and nephews. I pray God helps me through this because I love and miss them so bad.”

Rita Hall, 78

Rita Hall’s body was found inside the one-story house where she had lived for decades in Hindman, Ky., according to Curtis Hall, her son.

Tiny and sociable, with a weakness for estate auctions and yard sales, Ms. Hall, who had epilepsy, often relied on a walker and a cane to get around, but took pride in fending for herself after her grown children moved to Michigan, her son said. She was unmarried and lived alone.

“She was such a loving person,” Mr. Hall said. “If you were leaving her house, she would always want to know where were you going and ‘Can I ride with you?’ When I called, she was all, ‘Tell the kids I love them.’ She was just this short little pudgy woman who loved everyone.”

Rosie Vick, 55

Rosie Vick and her husband, Randall, were at home in Pine Top, Ky., when the storm hit, in the little creekside house they rented from his cousin on what had been the family homestead. Developmentally disabled, Ms. Vick was known in her husband’s family for her lively sense of humor and her fierce appetite for work.

“She’d have a hillside weeded and the grass mowed off it before a man ever could,” said Ms. Gibson, the nurse practitioner whose husband owned the property where the couple lived. Ms. Vick worked occasional odd jobs to supplement their disability income. “And she was a little firecracker,” Ms. Gibson said.

When the rains came, Ms. Gibson said, Ms. Vick was on the couch with her husband, sitting out the storm in her shorts and a blue Kentucky Wildcats T-shirt, when she felt the house move. “He told us he said, ‘Sit still a minute, I think you imagined that,’ and she said, ‘No, I didn’t,’” Ms. Gibson said.

As the water lifted the house from its foundation, the couple tried to hold the sliding glass door shut, but the water burst in and carried them away. Mr. Vick “told us he went under every culvert and bridge, dog paddling, and could feel himself scraping the blacktop and going over rocks.”

She said that he was eventually rescued by neighbors with ropes who waded into chest-high water to retrieve him, but that his wife’s body was found some five miles away, buried in sand except for one hand. Their wrecked home was found sideways on the other side of the creek.

Jeanette Johnson, 65

Jeanette Johnson was days shy of her 66th birthday and far from family when her body was found inside her family homestead. A nephew, Michael Johnson, said that relatives had begged her for years to leave the house, where she had grown up and which still had outdoor bathrooms.

But she had insisted on staying, he said, reminding family that her church community regularly dropped off groceries and checked in on her, and, in any case, that she had a dozen cats to look after. She spoke to her brother each week on Sunday. And, her nephew recalled, she always had peanut butter cookies for him when he visited as a child.

Mr. Johnson said the family believed she was asleep when the flood trapped her. To think otherwise, he said, would be “terrifying.”

Betty Jean Estep, 67

Hours before the flood, Misty Baker had video messaged her mother, Betty Jean Estep, sharing images of Ms. Estep’s great-granddaughter. “She said, ‘I love you and I’ll talk to you in the morning — I hope,’” Ms. Baker said.

As the water rose, Ms. Estep tried to run for her life after a storage shed broke loose from its moorings and slammed hard into the side of her trailer, a gift from her boyfriend of 17 years, Ronnie Holcomb. He knew he was going to fall in love with her when she walked into his antique store, he said in an interview.

They had grown together over the years, living together for a while, but Ms. Estep, twice divorced, wanted space; he bought her the trailer to honor her wishes and moved himself to a place in Tennessee. They talked multiple times a day and visited often. She wore an engagement ring he had given her, but she reminded him, in a teasing way, that they were not married.

“She let me know, though, that I wasn’t the kingpin,” Mr. Holcomb said. “But we were there for each other.”

At a visitation over the weekend, her family sat on the porch of Letcher Funeral Home and told stories of her incredible cooking. She didn’t just make dinners; she made feasts and poured helping upon helping on their plates. Relatives mentioned her delicious soup beans (a mountain dish), apple cake and a host of other dishes. One relative, Michelle Skiles, called her “the most cookingest woman” anyone had ever known.

Ms. Estep was afraid of two things: spiders and high water.

“It’s high water that was the culprit in the end,” Mr. Holcomb said.

Diana Amburgey, 65

It was nearly 2 a.m. Thursday when Robin Shepherd got a call from her mother, Diana Amburgey, who was 15 miles away in Hindman, Ky. “She said she could hear the walls popping off but couldn’t see anything because the lights had gone out,” Ms. Shepherd said.

Ms. Shepherd called 911, “but they kept saying they didn’t have any boats and couldn’t get to her.” A half-hour later, her mother called again. The water was up to window-level now.

“I told her, ‘Hang on to something that can float,’ but she was so scared,” Ms. Shepherd said. Unable to swim, her mother had never before ventured into water that was more than knee-deep.

Frantic, Ms. Shepherd drove to Hindman, peering helplessly from an overpass while friends climbed down into the flood zone, looking for her mother’s trailer. It was gone: The water had washed it away, leaving only bits and pieces.

Ms. Amburgey’s body was found some five hours later about four miles away. She had been a mother who spoke to her daughter every day, a Baptist, a doting grandmother and great-grandmother, an inveterate maker of peanut butter fudge and, her daughter said, “the lady who worked at the gas station.”

Three generations of family members had been scheduled to leave on Saturday for a vacation to Clearwater, Fla.

“She was so excited,” her daughter said. “Why does someone have to go like that, in a way that was so scary to them? She was begging for help and I couldn’t help her. I don’t know how to even begin to process it. How do other people deal with something like this?”

Maham Javaid contributed reporting. Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

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