Wolfe County Search and Rescue Team Chief John May transports a Kentucky family in a Zodiac boat on July 28, 2022. Photo courtesy Wolfe County Search and Rescue Team.
They’d been dodging limbs for hours before dawn on Thursday, July 28, but they had to keep motoring into the dark off Highway 15.
Water had risen higher than a man’s head, a hallmark of some of the worst flooding to wallop Breathitt County in generations, and folks were drowning in the hollers between the Panbowl Lake Dam and Jackson.
"I can't even give you a GPS coordinate at this point,” May, 54, told Coffee or Die Magazine. “We were so busy. I wasn't tracking. I was just trying to get people, you know, keep them from dying."
A Wolfe County Search and Rescue Team volunteer prepares to transport a family and their pet to higher ground on Thursday, July 28, 2022, following flash floods across Kentucky’s eastern counties. Wolfe County Search and Rescue Team photo.
By Monday night, the death toll after a week of flash floods across eastern Kentucky stood at 37, with another squall line poised to pummel the Bluegrass State with more downpours, gale-force winds, and rampaging waters.
Team spokesperson and rescue volunteer Drew Stephens, 32, called the unfolding calamity a “once-in-a-millennium-type flood,” but it didn’t seem to start out like that.
Stephens said the initial round of dispatches around 4 a.m. on Thursday had only pointed to a couple of inundated homes, but that soon became “the understatement of the decade.”
May recalled those first SOS calls and the night sky crackling with lightning, and he started getting “this sickening feeling in my stomach that this is going to be really bad.”
And then it got a lot worse.
A Kentucky Army National Guard flight crew from Bravo Co., 2nd Battalion, 147th Assault Helicopter, flies over the eastern stretches of Kentucky on July 30, 2022. US Army photo by Spc. Danielle Sturgill.
May's all-volunteer team is used to bad. They run wilderness rescues throughout the year, usually in the Red River Gorge, and they’re swift-water experts.
But long before midnight tolled on Thursday, their Zodiac had smacked so much flotsam and snagged so many underwater logs that the boat's laminated transom had buckled and split.
The motor kept chugging, however, so they kept saving people.
May told Coffee or Die Magazine about the man and woman who were clutching a utility pole guy wire to keep from drowning. He was hurt. She was hypothermic. Water was over their home’s rooftop, just behind them.
There were the dogs and cats clinging to tree branches that the rescuers plucked off like fruit before the pets were swept away.
Kentucky Army and Air National Guard troops aided in flood relief efforts across the eastern counties of Kentucky on July 28, 2022. Kentucky National Guard photo by Sgt. Jessica Elbouab.
And there was that family of five folks trapped in their attic, floodwater lapping at their roof.
May’s team brought power tools to cut into the wooden buildings, but that’s when they realized the housetop was tin.
“We decided the only way we could get them out was if we came down and knocked out some windows on a lower section and then just had them come out of the attic,” May said.
From above the treetops, pilots in a UH-60L Black Hawk helicopter from the Kentucky Army National Guard’s Detachment 1, C Company, 2nd Battalion, 238th Aviation Regiment, had been pointing the Zodiac team where to go next, but now May needed one of the soldiers to come down to him.
A crewman was lowered down to the wet tin roof. The family trudged through chest-high water filling their home until they reached the shattered window.
Kentucky Army and Air National Guard troops conduct flood relief efforts in the eastern counties of Kentucky on July 30, 2022. Kentucky National Guard photo by Sgt. Jessica Elbouab.
May ran the boat to the pane, and then his team yanked all five family members into the Zodiac, which he steered to the edge of the roof.
The family clambered up it, walking toward the crewman so he could hoist them to the helicopter, which was blasting the rescue team’s faces with rotor wash.
It whipped up vines and saplings, poison ivy and poison oak, and water now slick with oil from underwater trucks and cars. May's face was spackled with the creek crud. But he called the Guardsmen’s bravery and competence that morning “unbelievable.”
One of the saved family members was an 83-year-old woman, May said.
He figures they saved roughly 100 residents while working with the Guard and local first responders on Thursday.
Thirteen Kentucky counties near the Bluegrass State's border with Virginia and West Virginia are part of a federal disaster area, due to flash floods, landslides, and mudslides. Coffee or Die Magazine composite.
But they couldn’t save every life.
May recalled his battered Zodiac kept passing a herd of horses trying to keep their heads above the water. The team’s impulse was to save them, but they knew they couldn’t.
“I had to actively avoid them because, you know, a huge animal like that could have sunk our boat,” May said.
After a round of rescues, May circled back to “get those horses pointed in the right direction” and toward high ground. The team whistled and shouted until the animals began to swim in the wake of the Zodiac.
May said he’s confident three of the five horses made it, “which was pretty cool.”
Wolfe County Search and Rescue Team Chief John May shares photos from his home of his eye injury and infection he received while conducting rescues Thursday, July 28, 2022, following a Kentucky flood. Wolfe County Search and Rescue Team photo.
Five days after he got punched in the face by a tree, May doesn’t feel great.
Whatever was in the rotor wash from the Black Hawk caused his mug to swell up. The rash ran down his neck, and his black eye pinched shut.
“It’s not been a fun few days,” he said.
But he’s doing better than eastern Kentucky.
After the storms and the flooding came landslides and mudslides, then a heat wave. President Joe Biden declared 13 counties a disaster area, sluicing federal aid to the region.
An Airman from the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron search for flood victims from a helicopter in Eastern Kentucky on July 30, 2022. In response to devastating flooding, the unit coordinated 29 rotary-wing relief missions, rescued 19 people and two dogs, and recovered four bodies. Their command-and-control efforts also facilitated the assistance or recovery of 40 people. US Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Clayton Wear.
Breathitt County has ordered an overnight curfew to curtail looting. As the waters recede, May knows they’ll find more bodies there.
“Normally, you’re watching this on the news and it’s happening somewhere else,” May said.
For his day job, May manages an electric utility, so he knows he’ll be working to restore power, too.
“It’s a real tragedy,” he said. “A whole bunch of good people trying to do some good things up there. That sums it up. It’s going to be a long time rebuilding, for sure. This mud, it's got everything in the world in it; oil, gas, waste — you name it, and it's in it. So it's going to be a hazard to people that are cleaning. We'd like to emphasize to take care of yourself when you're cleaning up these homes.”
Noelle is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die through a fellowship from Military Veterans in Journalism. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and interned with the US Army Cadet Command. Noelle also worked as a civilian journalist covering several units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment on Fort Benning, before she joined the military as a public affairs specialist.
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