Flooding reported in three states; at least six dead

Tuesday, March 19, 2002

HARLAN, Ky. -- A second day of heavy rain in the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee triggered floods and mudslides Monday that destroyed dozens of homes and forced some to flee by boat as water lapped at the rooftops.

Tennessee authorities blamed at least six deaths on the storm, which dumped as much as 6 inches of rain on the region Sunday. Showers are expected over the next couple of days.

Flash flooding early Monday in the riverfront town of Cumberland sent a trailer plunging over a 50-foot embankment with a family inside. A tearful Jacqueline Bellofatto recounted how she survived the fall and then searched frantically for her 7-year-old daughter in the mud and rain.

"I just started yelling for her and she wasn't there," said Bellofatto, who began digging in the mud beneath the trailer. "I just dug her out with my hands. She was buried alive."

Once the daughter was found safe, Bellofatto, her husband, their daughter and 4-year-old son struck out for a neighbor's home to seek help.

Throughout Kentucky, at least 250 homes were damaged or destroyed. Authorities ordered the evacuations of a string of communities in the Cumberland River basin, where rooftops could be seen protruding from the murky water.

"The water came up so fast that we didn't have time to save anything," said Kimberly Evans, who was forced from her home at Dayhoit. "All we can do now is wait until we can get back in and see what we can salvage."

Officials called the flooding in eastern Kentucky the worst in the region in 25 years. National Guard troops were sent in with three boats, three trucks and a Humvee to assist with evacuations.

Most school systems in the region were closed. Water lapped at the steps of a vocational school outside Pineville, covered two school buses, and inundated a $12 million golf course.

In Tennessee, where the brunt of the storm had passed, residents waited for floodwaters that covered roads to recede.

Two people drowned crossing swollen creeks and a family of three died in a traffic accident on rain-slickened Interstate 24. In Nashville, an 18-year-old man was killed when his vehicle hydroplaned and hit a tree.

Red Cross shelters remained open but empty in the hardest-hit counties of the Great Smoky Mountains, Blount and Sevier, where more than 100 families evacuated homes Sunday.

"At this point, unless we have more families needing a place to stay, we will probably put them in motels," said Red Cross spokesman Chris Davis. "It is quieting down."

Nearly three dozen roads were still under water in Sevier County and dozens more in Blount, Knox and surrounding counties. Forecasters predicted more rain later in the week.

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner declared emergencies in seven counties in the southwestern part of the state, and summoned National Guard troops to help evacuate residents.

About 50 people were driven from their homes in and around Saltville after more than 4 inches of rain caused flooding along the Clinch and Holston rivers.

"We've been hit pretty hard," said Steve Surber, chief of police for the town of 2,300. "It's the worst I've ever seen, and I've been here 20 years."

In Virginia's Wise County, about 400 people were evacuated to shelters.

"Many vehicles were lost," sheriff's Sgt. Teresa Meade said. "Quite a bit of livestock has been lost, too."In Tennessee, where the brunt of the storm had passed, residents waited for floodwaters that covered roads to recede.

Two people drowned crossing swollen creeks and a family of three died in a traffic accident on rain-slickened Interstate 24.

Red Cross shelters remained open but empty in the hardest-hit counties of the Great Smoky Mountains, Blount and Sevier, where more than 100 families evacuated homes Sunday.

"At this point, unless we have more families needing a place to stay, we will probably put them in motels," said Red Cross spokesman Chris Davis. "It is quieting down."

Nearly three dozen roads were still under water in Sevier County and dozens more in Blount, Knox and surrounding counties. Forecasters predicted more rain later in the week.

In southwestern Virginia, at least 15 people were driven from their homes in the town of Saltville after more than 4 inches of rain caused flooding along the Clinch and Holston rivers.

"We've been hit pretty hard," said Steve Surber, chief of police for the town of 2,300. "It's the worst I've ever seen, and I've been here 20 years."

In Virginia's Wise County, about 400 people were evacuated to shelters.

"Many vehicles were lost," sheriff's Sgt. Teresa Meade said. "Quite a bit of livestock has been lost, too."


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"There are lots of places that we can't get into yet to assess the damage," said Jim Roark, a Harlan County magistrate.

Scores of people were evacuated from their homes Monday in southwestern Virginia and some were isolated by high water or mudslides.

"It's the worst I've ever seen, and I've been here 20 years," said Steve Surber, police chief in Saltville, Va.

At Coeburn in Virginia's Wise County, "four or five mobile home parks have up to five feet of water flowing through them," said Janet Clements of the Virgi8nia Department of Emergency Management.

The Holston crested in Saltville at a record 14.9 feet on Monday, said Mike Gillen of the weather service office in Blacksburg, Va. Flood stage is 10 feet and the previous record is 13.6. The Clinch crested at 11.7 feet at Richlands, not a record but still more than 1 1/2 feet above flood stage.

It was the second round of flooding for Virginia's Tazewell County in eight months. Nearly 700 homes and 50 businesses were damaged in July by flooding and mudslides triggered by more than 3 inches of rain in about two hours.

Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner declared a state of emergency for seven counties and the city of Norton.

A mudslide in Harlan County, Ky., pushed a mobile home over a 50-foot embankment early Monday and smashed it, and Jacqueline Bellofatto had to dig her 7-year-old daughter out of the mud beneath the wreckage.

"I just dug her out with my hands. She was buried alive," Bellofatto said. "I just started yelling for her and she wasn't there."

Once the daughter was safe, Bellofatto, her husband and their two children struggled to safety. "We were finding out with each step that we took we would sink down to our chest in the mud," she said.

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