“You can’t clean anything without water,” said Donald “Happy” Mobelini, the mayor of Hazard, a town of about 5,000 at the center of the floods.
One-gallon jugs of water are almost as ubiquitous as bottles. In recent days, tank trucks full of water have been brought in. But the region needs more.
Almost as soon as the donated water arrives, it is used by thousands of people who need it to bathe, drink and wash away the thick layers of mud that the floodwaters have left inside businesses, homes and clothes.
After the heaviest rains died down last week, much of Hazard was without electricity or running water. Over the past few days, electricity and water have been restored by the thousands at a time. Mobelini said much of the south side of the county should have its water restored by the end of the week.
But he said he could not give a timeline for the return of water for many of the counties’ outlying rural communities, which have suffered most of the worst destruction.
“The pipes are gone,” Mobelini said of those areas. “We have about five teams from different cities here to help us assess, but we’re going to have to rebuild all the infrastructure, so I don’t know how long that’s going to take.”
“We are not close to recovering,” Mobelini said. “We need these big companies to step in and really, really help with more than just water.”
PHOTOS: Kentucky floods kill at least 37
Much of the region’s rugged terrain can challenge reconstruction efforts. The small community of River Caney, which occupies a narrow valley one county from Hazard, is accessible by a single state highway.
Prior to the flood, a paved road ran through much of the community. On Wednesday, large portions of this road appeared to have been reclaimed by the surrounding hills. Broken power lines hung as crushed cars, abandoned sheds and houses lined the side of the road. The semi-turbid waters of Caney Creek gurgled from a nearby hill.
Last week’s rain came so quickly that Caney Creek jumped from its banks and swept away homes in the valley. Lurain Noble’s house was uprooted by the flood, she said near a pile of cinder blocks where her home once stood. Unlike others, his house was still visible but was a few meters down the street and visibly damaged.
To escape the rushing current, Noble, 54, and his family scaled a nearby hill, which had become a muddy slide. They waited there for the waters to calm down and she said she had been staying with her nephew ever since. However, she returns home every day, trying to figure out what is salvageable and sometimes using the waters of the creek that caused so much damage.
“I take my things to the creek and wash them. There’s mud that thick,” Noble said, spreading his fingers a few inches.
Years ago, Noble said she and other community members got their water from nearby wells. They did this until the water in their taps turned black. She blamed a nearby mining operation that was blasting mountain layers to get at the coal below.
“When they light those shots up there, it rocks your whole house,” Noble said, adding that they have since moved on to running water, which the community has been without since last week.
Noble said she hasn’t heard anything specific about when that water service might be back.
Unknown persons have passed several times in recent days, distributing jugs and boxes of water. Noble said some of his neighbors who stayed used it to wash and clean. Others carry ice packs to help keep milk and eggs in coolers.
“They’re going to bounce back,” Noble said. “We are not giving up here. I will not do it. I’m going home. I think everyone here will tell you that.
After major flooding, Kentucky grapples with damage left behind
Others have been creative in meeting the new water needs of their community. In the town of Hindman in hard-hit Knott County, Hindman Settlement School has relaunched a more self-sustaining water system.
The school, founded in 1902 to educate children from mining families, has for much of its history drawn water from a well, pump and cistern on a hill neighbor,” said Will Anderson, the school’s executive director. In recent years, the school has switched to the city’s water supply.
“They don’t think there will be water here, two weeks to a month,” Anderson said Tuesday. “So we came up with the idea of, well, maybe our old system still works.”
Maintainers started the well late Monday, he said.
“We went to the faucet outside our building, turned it on, and for the first five minutes it tasted like chocolate milk,” Anderson said. “I mean, it was just thick and ugly. But after running for about five minutes, the result is relatively clear.
The water is not drinkable but can be used for flushing toilets and, above all, for cleaning houses. Anderson said they want to bring in an expert who can determine if it’s safe to shower, but in the meantime residents can come and fill large tanks with water for cleaning.
“It was a huge relief for a lot of people, because we had probably gone five days without water,” Anderson said. “And so, it’s simple things like that, it’s like a breath of fresh air.”