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 January 29th marks the 54th anniversary of the '57 Flood


Hazard witnessed its worst flood in history

The water engulfed homes and businesses in Hazard on January 29, 1957.  The old Perry County jail can be seen on the left.  Every business felt the tremendous surge of thousands of tons of water from the Kentucky River.  Cars were tossed like matchsticks, store windows were crushed, and merchandise was scattered through the streets.  The WSGS & WKIC Studios in the basement of People's Bank were completely submerged.  Announcers broadcast emergency messages from a make shift studio at the transmitter building in Walkertown.  "Hazard is destroyed, but we'll build it back and it will still be the best town in Kentucky," said Dewey Daniel at People's Bank.  34 year old Mack Hill of Hazard was riding along Main Street in a boat when he noticed two women stranded in an office building.  As he reached out to give one of them a hand the boat capsized and he disappeared in the thick, muddy water.  Another boat saved the women, but Hill drowned.

Power Outage

When the power failed in Hazard during the flood, the Mount Mary Hospital put emergency generators in operation to provide light in the operating and delivery rooms and heat in the nursery.  But there was no heat in the rest of the hospital, and nurses fed 94 patients with the food they could cook on a three burner kerosene stove.  All the patients had coffee heated with a blowtorch.  Just as Mrs. William Luttrell walked into the operating room for a Caesarean section, the emergency generator went off.  The operation was performed under battery-operated lights in five minutes.  Mrs. Luttrell gave birth to a 6 and a half pound boy, Edwin, and was carried back to her room because the elevators were not working.  She said her husband, an electrician had a harder time than she did.  He scoured the flooded town for a means to heat his wife's room.  He found a kerosene stove, which he watched 24 hours a day so it wouldn't catch fire when there was no water to put it out.  For several days the little stove provided the only heat in the hospital outside the nursery. 

What people were saying

Mrs. Rollie Combs, 62, of Christopher:  "I lost everything I had in the flood.  I've cried myself to death these last few days.  My home is ruined.  My husband, who teaches school at Camp Creek in Leslie County, was away when the flood struck us Tuesday afternoon.  My twin granddaughters, Penny and Pat Muncy, who are four years old, and I were in the house at the time.  The floodwaters of the North Fork of the Kentucky River kept creeping closer and closer to our house and finally rose a few inches on our floors.  I was frantic.  The thought of saving Penny and Pat was foremost in my mind.  About that time, Jenny Muncy, my daughter and the mother of the twins, came in the door.  My Lord, I was glad to see her.  Jenny said, 'Momma, get the girls and get out to the road as fast as you can.' (Kentucky 15 ran along side the Combs home).  I jerked up the twins, went out the back door and up the riverbank at that point.  It's higher there than it is at the front of my house near the door.  Pretty soon Jenny ran out carrying a cedar chest.  That's all she could get out before the water started running through the house.  A few minutes later Harold Jones came by in his automobile and took us all up to the home of his mother, a widow who has been my neighbor for years.  We stayed at her house for a day or two - I've lost all track of time these days - and then we went to the home of my son in Indiana.  I came back home Sunday, but they wouldn't let me inside my house.  But, from what I could see through the door, everything I had was destroyed.  Half of that stuff isn't all paid for.  Mr. Combs and I bought it on his little salary as a school teacher and we just pay a few dollars a month on it."  

Fred Bingham, Hazard, KY:  "The lightning like way the flood struck was absolutely unbelievable.  It is just hard to describe.  I am still walking around in a daze to figure out just what made the water come down on us so fast."


The time was 6 p.m., January 29, 1957. The place was the home of Bill Roll, seen in the above photo, in Walkertown. "Middleground 16, Hazard, Ky., calling any Civil Air Patrol 16 with possible emergency traffic," Roll announced on his short wave radio.  Outside his window, he could see water rolling over Kentucky 15.  For 20 minutes, Roll transmitted the same words over and over again:  "Middleground 16, Hazard, Ky., calling any C. A. P. 16 with possible emergency traffic."  Only moments before he switched on the transmitter to the C. A. P. station at his, "Middleground 16", Roll and a friend, Bill Nolan, had abandoned their bottle gas business on Ky. 15 in Walkertown to the rising flood waters.  They rushed to Roll's house on Plum Street, disconnected an emergency power unit from the Hazard C. A. P. mobile broadcasting vehicle and attached it to a transmitter on Roll's porch.  Electric power facilities had already been wrecked dramatically in a flashing thunder of brilliant lights and smoke. Long distance telephone lines were out, and with the crest of the flood still hours away, Hazard was already isolated from the world. Roads were blocked by water. There was no outside communication.  While Nolan nursed the power unit with the gasoline line, Roll repeated again for the hundredth or two hundredth time:  "Middleground 16, Hazard, Ky., calling any C. A. P. 16 with possible emergency traffic."  He could only hope that somewhere in these United States there would be a C. A. P. radio operator at his station who could understand that Roll had information of an emergency situation here in Hazard.  And then it came:  "This is Red Star 5, Atlanta, Georgia." It was a woman's voice. Flooded Hazard was no longer isolated from the world!  Roll went on the air at 6 p. m., on January 29th 1957.  But with only an hour's sleep, he remained there until late in the night on January 31st, sending and receiving messages.  When contact was made with Red Star 5, his work and that of other Civil Air Patrol members here was only beginning.  Before the station signed off , the following C. A. P. members here played important rolls in communication work -- Maj. C. F. Hahn, Ben Roll. Bill's brother, Lt. Elmer Roll, Lt. Herb Bonta, Lt. Arlie Webb, Capt. Bernard Faulkner, Lt. Homer Wilson, and S-M's Tommie Stacy, Nancy Howard, Jack Wilson and Sonny Engle.  Hahn, a local dentist, took off from the Hazard airport, taxiing his plane through water, and flew to London to set up a C. A. P. broadcasting unit there as a contact point for Hazard. His decision later proved wise because London was established as the rescue center for this area.  The first message out of Hazard was from Dewey Daniel, president, Peoples Bank. After contacting Red Star 5, Roll phoned the telephone company and volunteered his services. The phone company quickly accepted them, and got in touch with Daniel.  Daniel's initial message went to Kentucky Governor Happy Chandler and Senators Morton and Cooper. It was a terse appeal for help, and an announcement the devastation here would run into the millions.  His, however, was but the first message. Before Middleground 16 signed off on February 1, 1957, four days after they began, over 400 messages had been sent out of Hazard by short wave radio.  They scribbled their messages on advertising handouts, envelopes, note paper, and anything Roll and the C. A. P. could use.  A few of the messages were humorous. At least one, to the parents of Mr. and Mrs. George Ward, living in Ohio, was somber:  "Your son -- Raymond, drowned last night near Hazard, Ky. Body has been sent to Craft Funeral Home in Whitesburg and is to be returned to Engle Funeral Home in Hazard. He was visiting his Uncle Taylor Stacy at Mill Creek".  Together the messages tell the dramatic story of the flood which all but wiped this community from the map 45 years ago. But they also reveal the heart that made the people of Hazard and Perry County come back to win over insurmountable odds.  

The people of Eastern Kentucky pulled themselves by their bootstraps out of the mud and devastation of the '57 flood.  Those who lost every possession accumulated in a lifetime of work felt this way: "I'm thankful I'm alive.  There are others who died, or lost loved ones."  The intrepid spirit of the citizens of Hazard during the 1957 flood was exemplified by Roy Sizemore with the Public Works Department in Hazard.  Sizemore's mother and father were burned to death on January 29, 1957 when a home housing 40 flood refugees caught fire.  All the occupants escaped except the elderly couple.  Efforts to remove them proved futile.  However, their grief stricken son did not stop working at his important post to restore public utility services to Hazard.  "I figure we all have to pitch in now to do whatever we can, regardless of what happened to our loved ones," said Sizemore.  

After the flood, the people would meet you on the streets and you'd ask, "Did the flood get you?"  "Yep," the flood victims would answer tersely, "Everything is gone."  But their voices didn't sound pessimistic.  They were really saying, "O.K., it's come and gone.  Now we'll start over."  Many of the children of the flood area had as much spunk as the adults.  A little boy at the Lothair school was asked, "Did the water get you?"  "No mam." he answered. "I live high by a holler.  The water can't get me.  But the wind sure does whistle."


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