Whenever it rains now, Hays’ 7-year-old daughter puts her shoes on in preparation. She prayed out loud for God to take her and save her family as the floodwaters rose, Hays recalled.
Hays, who climbed the nearby mountain to call for rescuers, also called Pillersdorf about the suit and told him that his neighbors needed help. He admitted that he fears that others in the in the area may resent him for it.
“Everyone here has a connection to coal, and I know it’s going to break some ties,” Hays said outside his home. “I just really dread it so badly, but it has to happen. All of us here need help.”
The water’s destructive path is still clear in this small community, where family plots and collective memories go back generations. Twisted scraps of metal are all that remain of homes and family cars. The raging river that allegedly started at the silt pond has returned to the shallow creek that has long babbled down a deep ditch that slices through the hollow.
Jack Spadero, the former director of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy, who has testified as an expert witness in numerous coal mine lawsuits in recent years, watched drone video shot by a resident in the River Caney area. He said that it was clear that the damage was the result of a lack of reclamation work and silt pond failures and that it is not the only example of its occurring in east Kentucky.
“The really severe damage, where there was mud and debris and rocks that destroyed the homes in a tidal wave-like event, are related to the mining that was done at the headwaters of the watershed at the mountaintop removal sites,” he said. “We know it was a sizable rainfall, but in the watersheds that were not mined, there was a flood, water got up and then it went back down, but it didn’t do the damage that was done in the watersheds where mining took place.”
As a result, the sense of safety and security that many felt here has disappeared, and many question whether they can continue living in the area.
Burley and Brittney White, who are siblings, live next door to their parents in separate homes with their spouses and children. Burley, 28, lost his entire home, which he and his wife had poured their life savings into. They saw the water turn from brown to gray when it suddenly rose. The siblings dashed up the mountainside with their kids and parents. They spent the night in a family cemetery under a small, low-hanging pavilion.
Eight adults and seven kids huddled together for hours. The Whites left the hollow and did not return until they heard from others that the nearest pond had been repaired.
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