On February 26, 2021, I looked at the weath­er on my phone, as I often do, and saw rain in the fore­cast. After see­ing the upcom­ing rain, I then checked the National Weather Service riv­er fore­cast­ing ser­vice web­site, and I noticed with a start that the riv­er lev­el was fore­cast to rise from its cur­rent lev­el of 17.5 feet and reach 23.8 feet — just shy of minor flood­ing lev­el — rather sud­den­ly over Sunday, February 28.  That rise got my atten­tion – I had been wor­ried about flood­ing poten­tial since recent snowmelt and an ice storm had sat­u­rat­ed the ground. 

Nancy and Jim
Nancy and Jim.

We had moved to the shore of the Kentucky River just a year before.  We knew, of course, that the house was in a flood zone; the risks asso­ci­at­ed with that fact were off­set by the pri­va­cy, the oppor­tu­ni­ty to kayak from our back­yard, by the vaca­tion-home feel, the loca­tion per­fect­ly sit­u­at­ed for our dis­parate com­mutes to work (com­mutes we rarely drove, since the pan­dem­ic pushed our work online), and the set­ting for our three chil­dren, ages 17–20, to stay with us.  I teach sus­tain­abil­i­ty, and I am well aware of the like­li­hood that cli­mate change would exac­er­bate flood­ing events, but I fig­ured we just had to plan accordingly. 

We didn’t store books down­stairs. Whenever I saw that the riv­er was like­ly to rise, I moved our kayaks uphill, clos­er to the house.  I had plans for what art I would move when the waters rose.  I made sure my old­est daugh­ter stored most of her belong­ings in sealed plas­tic totes, because her bed­room was downstairs. 

In May of 2020, we had watched the waters rise to about 25 feet, a few feet short of our patio, while we stayed home and con­tin­ued our new­ly­wed quar­an­tine; I thought of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ nov­el Love in the Time of Cholera. 

Living the dream and preparing for a nightmare

Magical real­ism is an apt descrip­tion of how dreamy that first year was.  We kayaked under pink and orange sun­sets, hiked up a grav­el­ly streambed to a water­fall, watched pre­his­toric-look­ing great blue herons glide over the riv­er; we learned stars and drank cock­tails on our patio.  We watched thick fogs fade in morn­ing sun­light. I iden­ti­fied song­birds I’d nev­er seen before, and we watched a rac­coon climb along the roofline of the aban­doned house next door. 

We didn’t have to leave for work, and our whole world was us and our fam­i­ly.  When the waters rose in May, two months after our mar­riage and when we moved in, the won­der and fas­ci­na­tion I felt exceed­ed the anx­i­ety.  A beaver swam through our back yard, and snakes – more Eden than night­mare – rest­ed dry in the tops of shrubs, sun­ning them­selves dry as the water crest­ed. We watched the cur­rent, swift and pow­er­ful, car­ry­ing away trees and debris.  The water reced­ed a few days lat­er, and our lives in par­adise continued. 

But hon­est­ly, by this late February day, eleven months after we moved in, we were rel­a­tive­ly com­pla­cent.  Some books had crept down­stairs.  I pulled up the kayaks and hung three in the car­port rafters, and tied two to a post in the car­port wall.  We moved some couch cush­ions and light­weight chairs upstairs and put impor­tant papers on top of coun­ters and desks.  I con­sid­ered mov­ing art­work, but I hon­est­ly thought I was lead­ing us to over­re­act to the pre­dic­tion already, so I left the art­work on the walls. 

Remembering the advice of a friend whose house had burned, I took pho­tos through­out the house and car­port, includ­ing open­ing kitchen cab­i­nets and pho­tograph­ing their con­tents.  Weeks lat­er, these pho­tos would great­ly sim­pli­fy our insur­ance claim process.  At the time, I was hon­est­ly just proud of our prepa­ra­tion work.

Two weeks before, we had expe­ri­enced a sin­gu­lar blast of win­ter weath­er – sev­er­al inch­es of snow and a trace of ice.   I had cross-coun­try skied down our grav­el road.  The ground was sat­u­rat­ed.  This snow had melt­ed into the ground, and plants were still dor­mant – not soak­ing up any of the soil mois­ture.  The week­end that end­ed February and began March, as much as six inch­es of rain fell on us and through­out the Kentucky River water­shed upstream from us.  Neither the win­ter storm nor the rain­fall was his­toric, tak­en alone, but the com­bi­na­tion of the two led to a riv­er rise to over 38 feet – eight feet high­er than pre­dict­ed, and a foot deep in our sec­ond story.

The aftermath

In ret­ro­spect — though I had known it would flood — I had not com­pre­hend­ed that when it flood­ed, both sto­ries of our house would become unin­hab­it­able dur­ing the post-flood ren­o­va­tions. We would have been liv­ing in extreme­ly dif­fi­cult con­di­tions even if the flood had been a foot low­er, and the sec­ond sto­ry had remained untouched.  As it was, what we thought was a night or two in our tiny, 12-foot camper became a week in AirBnBs, fol­lowed by four months liv­ing in a church gym­na­si­um – the best place where our cats and dogs could stay with us while we wait­ed for repairs, and until we ulti­mate­ly decid­ed to move to town. 

The view from the second story deck.
The view from the sec­ond sto­ry deck. (Click to enlarge.)

The night before we evac­u­at­ed turned out to be our last night in our riv­er home. 

For that week as the water crest­ed, we lived in sus­pend­ed ani­ma­tion.  Jim went to work.  I taught my cours­es — online, as before.  We walked the dogs and wor­ried about the cats, who we’d left in the house, with food and water and lit­ter upstairs.  We picked up chicks from the post office which I had ordered a cou­ple of months ear­li­er, and I asked a friend if she and her fam­i­ly could care for them for a while. 

We drove to Louisville for an errand on the day the water crest­ed, and as we drove over the Kentucky River we saw what looked like a house – we lat­er learned it was a mari­na – float­ing down­riv­er.  We alert­ed our insur­ance com­pa­ny and tried to line up a flood cleanup com­pa­ny.  On the fourth day, I kayaked in, tied the kayak to the upstairs deck, and brought addi­tion­al food for the cats, though we didn’t locate all of them until we could final­ly walk in the front door when the waters dropped. 

Meanwhile, we read and heard of all the dev­as­ta­tion around us.  We texted with our near­est neigh­bors, and stopped to talk with neigh­bors we didn’t know, on Amster Grove, whose vehi­cles were gath­ered at a small park­ing area at the top of their road. Of 45 hous­es on that road, only two were still hab­it­able after the flood. 

These con­ver­sa­tions con­tin­ued through the next sev­er­al weeks dur­ing the post-flood cleanup.  We found com­fort and grief both in the fact that we had so much com­pa­ny in this dis­as­ter – we wouldn’t wish it on any­one, but at the time it was a com­fort to know that we weren’t alone. 

On Friday, March 6, the riv­er was drop­ping rapid­ly, and we arranged to meet our FEMA rep­re­sen­ta­tive at the house mid-morn­ing.  We arrived ear­ly and watched help­less­ly and anx­ious­ly as the water dropped and we wait­ed to enter the house.  A cou­ple of friends came to be present with us for the first shock. 

We walked toward the house sev­er­al times over the next cou­ple of hours, wait­ing for the water height to drop below the lev­el of our mud boots.  We even­tu­al­ly were able to move the piti­ful piles of use­less sand­bags we had put next to the doors, and go in.

Drywall ceil­ings had col­lapsed and were active­ly col­laps­ing.  Mud was every­where.  The wash­ing machine, which I had closed firm­ly shut so it wouldn’t get flood­wa­ter in the drum, had float­ed and then land­ed back­side down on the laun­dry room floor.  Household items had shift­ed and become piled up, unrec­og­niz­able at first look.  And that first day, we just looked – we knew we couldn’t even begin to address the dam­age.  We cleared a path to the stairs, and my friend Mary went up with me to look for the cats.

When we found them all alive, not even in need of vet­eri­nary atten­tion, I was so elat­ed at their sur­vival that my feel­ings about the rest of that day were odd­ly rosy.  I didn’t reg­is­ter how much work and how long a process we were in for.  We cel­e­brat­ed the day, our first wed­ding anniver­sary, with a pho­to of us shin-deep in riv­er water and grin­ning wide­ly in our car­port, tak­en by friends who showed up to help us.

We still felt incred­i­bly lucky.  We had a place to go.  We had flood insur­ance.  We had each oth­er.  We had got­ten to live togeth­er in paradise.

Helping hands

For the first few days after the flood­wa­ters reced­ed, our job was clear – remove our sal­vage­able belong­ings from the house and deposit the ruined ones on the road­side for the coun­ty waste dis­pos­al to pick up.  Some of the items were no great loss, such as a col­laps­ing couch we’d joked about tak­ing out the back door and leav­ing for the water to take away.  Some items were sim­ply a finan­cial loss to give to insur­ance, such as the brand-new refrig­er­a­tor and wash­ing machine we’d used just a few times.  Those kinds of items (clear­ly ruined, with no emo­tion­al attach­ment) were hauled out and pho­tographed, then left with­out a glance of regret. 

For me at least, the art­work was the hard­est loss, includ­ing two irre­place­able paint­ings by my pater­nal grand­moth­er and two orig­i­nal oil pas­tels by a friend I’ve known since grad­u­ate school. I could buy new works from her, but I still miss those par­tic­u­lar works, and the way the clouds reflect­ed in the water and the sun­light hit the snowy land­scape.  I joked that my new cri­te­ri­on for pur­chas­ing “things” was whether they were worth the trou­ble to car­ry out from a flood-ruined house. 

I had a crash course in learn­ing to accept help from oth­ers.  Jim is far bet­ter at this than I am; he reminds me that if peo­ple offer, they want to give.  The Spencers came and hauled out near­ly all of the soaked couch­es and shelves and dressers – and qui­et­ly res­cued Jim’s mother’s Bible and painstak­ing­ly dried what could be saved and pro­fes­sion­al­ly rebound and replaced what could not. 

Removing salvageable belongings from the house and depositing the ruined ones on the roadside for the county waste disposal to pick up.
Removing sal­vage­able belong­ings from the house and deposit­ing the ruined ones on the road­side for the coun­ty waste dis­pos­al to pick up. (Click to enlarge.)

My for­mer in-laws came and picked up the girls’ clothes to wash, and Amy vol­un­teered to take our mud­dy blan­kets and clothes, includ­ing coats, after I first ran them through the car wash for a rinse.  Rebecca and Deborah came and cleaned out the kitchen, sep­a­rat­ing dish­es and uten­sils from mud and food, laugh­ing togeth­er as they worked.  Beth and Maggie helped me hose down the patio, so our clean things could be car­ried out, and I loved catch­ing up with them and laugh­ing as we worked. 

Mark worked with Jim’s broth­er to car­ry out our (dry!) mat­tress­es so we would have a place to sleep in the gym­na­si­um.  Greg from the barn brought his trac­tor with front loader and scraped mud from the dri­ve­way onto the hill­side – and then scraped dri­ve­ways for sev­er­al neigh­bors as well.  Tens more friends came for hours of slog­ging through mud, bring­ing food and water and good humor and love.  We direct­ed and pho­tographed and made deci­sions and, each evening, went to our new home in the gym­na­si­um to eat din­ners brought by friends and parish­ioners.  We made jokes and cried togeth­er and held each oth­er and walked the dogs. 

How often will floods like this occur? This ques­tion was one we wres­tled with while the demo­li­tion crew worked, and we didn’t like the answer we had to acknowl­edge: we don’t know, but it will be more often than ever before. 

Lessons learned

Regardless of the wis­dom of pur­chas­ing the house in the first place, we had to grap­ple anew with flood fore­cast­ing and our own tol­er­ance for risk.  Given our oppor­tu­ni­ty for a fresh start (we’d already moved out!), we had to imag­ine the like­ly pos­si­bil­i­ty that we would face this kind of flood again and decide whether it was worth it – the loss of things, the plan­ning for evac­u­a­tion and sal­vage.  Although I began by want­i­ng to move back in, make it home, and feel some­how vic­to­ri­ous at the rebuild, weeks of fac­ing the raw ugli­ness and stink of piles of trash, debris, and slop­py work­men ate at me.  Jim, less sen­ti­men­tal about stuff than I am, was ready sooner. 

The next time it floods, I hope that Winchester has some refugee hous­ing ready for the dis­placed.  I hope that help­ing agen­cies find clear­er ways to com­mu­ni­cate with res­i­dents about evac­u­a­tion, and about ser­vices for rebuilding. 

I hope that the ren­o­va­tions we did mean that our old house will be far eas­i­er to clean up, so the own­ers can move back in soon­er and with less trauma. 

I have a long list of wish­es and hopes about how we’ll work to mit­i­gate flood­ing (less pave­ment, more trees, more wet­lands) and how we’ll be ready to help peo­ple who choose to live by our riv­er paradise. 

What I don’t have are regrets.  I am so grate­ful we had our mag­i­cal year at the riv­er, with great neigh­bors (humans and herons).  We got out with every­thing that mat­ters: each oth­er, an appre­ci­a­tion for the pow­er and beau­ty of our riv­er, and grat­i­tude for all the many peo­ple who helped us feel more part of Winchester than we did before.

  • Nancy Gift, a mem­ber of Better Together, Winchester, orig­i­nal­ly from Lexington, is a pro­fes­sor of Sustainability and Environmental Studies at Berea College, and spouse of Father Jim Trimble. She and Jim have three col­lege-age chil­dren and a menagerie of pets.