Southeast Kentucky received up to eight inches of rain during the evening of July 28, 2022, that resulted in the most catastrophic flooding event in the region’s recorded history. As the people of eastern Kentucky begin to rebuild, they face more than the devastating toll of lost loved ones and belongings. There are tons of muck, mire, and debris to be dealt with. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Louisville District is playing a vital role in those recovery efforts, providing support to the Commonwealth, and simultaneously cleaning up two of its own lake projects that withstood the flood and prevented millions of dollars in additional downstream damage.
Buckhorn Lake in Buckhorn, Kentucky, and Carr Creek Lake in Sassafras, Kentucky— Louisville District projects in the Kentucky River Basin— held back tremendous amounts of water that would have inundated downstream communities even more without their operation.
The lakes are part of an overall system of reservoirs managed by USACE to store water from heavy rains until the rivers and streams are at levels at which releases from the reservoirs will not cause additional flooding downstream. Many recreation areas at the lakes suffered damage, but the two flood risk management reservoirs served their intended purpose.
“Having our lakes in place prevented greater devastation in Hazard and Jackson and those areas downstream,” said Willie Whitaker, USACE Louisville District Upper Kentucky Area Operations Manager. “These projects helped prevent even greater loss of life and property damage.”
Buckhorn Lake on the Middle Fork of the Kentucky River recorded more than eight inches of rain within a 24-hour period. The lake rose 25 feet above summer pool at the height of the event.
“I never thought I would see this kind of event,” said Dewayne Shouse, USACE Louisville District Project manager at Buckhorn Lake. “It was a historic event, that’s for sure. We have had flash floods in this area before, but nothing quite like this.”
Preliminary estimates from the Louisville District indicate Buckhorn Lake reduced the estimated flood level downstream at Tallega, Kentucky, by more than five feet and provided more than $1.5 million in flood damage reduction benefits to communities downstream.
“We helped the greater river system,” said Shouse. “This project held back a lot of water—a lot of water.”
The same can be said for Carr Creek Lake on the North Fork of the Kentucky River where a new record pool was set at 1,050 feet—22 feet above normal summer pool.
“I have seen normal slow rising floods at Carr before, but this flash flood was crazy,” said Jesse Saylor, USACE Louisville District Project Manager at Carr Creek Lake. “It was rising in feet each hour. Not inches—feet.”
Preliminary estimates from the Louisville District indicate Carr Creek Lake reduced the flood level by more than 16 feet in Sassafras, Kentucky, more than four feet in Hazard, and more than three feet at Jackson, and provided more than $15.9 million in flood damage reduction benefits.
During the early hours of July 28 as water levels rose, USACE personnel sprang into action.
Buckhorn Lake Park Ranger Jacob Kramer was alerted that there was extreme flooding in the tailwater campground from heavy rainfall occurring in Squabble Creek, a tributary adjacent to the Buckhorn Dam tailwater.
“Kramer immediately utilized his cross-training in dam tending and back-up generator operation and rushed to completely close off the outflow of Buckhorn Lake to lessen the impacts of flash flooding downstream and quickly moved to evacuate park attendants and campers from the impending flash flooding,” said Whitaker.
“We immediately went into 24/7 shifts,” said Whitaker. “We just kicked things into an incredible speed and resorted back to our training to do what had to be done.”
Employees worked around the clock monitoring the dam, managing flows, and communicating with stakeholders and members of the public.
“I send my deepest appreciation to our teammates who weathered the storm, literally, to perform gate operations at our dams,” said Louisville District Commander Col. Eric Crispino. “The Louisville District is a team of consummate professionals who sacrifice selflessly for our mission, and their service does not go unrecognized.”
“In the immediate aftermath of the flood, our dam safety personnel deployed to inspect our dams, ensuring they were structurally sound and operating as intended, and members of the Louisville District Water Management and Dam Safety teams worked closely with lake staff to ensure the projects were properly storing water and providing a reduction to the flooding occurring downstream,” said Crispino.
Lake staff have since worked relentlessly to begin cleanup and repair efforts at both lakes. At this time, all USACE recreational areas at Buckhorn and Carr Creek lakes remain temporarily closed until further notice.
“We will clean it up and rebuild it,” said Whitaker. “We’ll get it cleaned up a load at a time, 1,000 feet at a time, but we’ll get it back.”
Some Louisville District teammates also suffered losses of their own homes and possessions.
“The realities of what everyone here has faced are devastating,” said Whitaker. “We’ve all in this area been through a lot, and we’re all forever crocheted together because of it.”
Across the Commonwealth, long-term recovery efforts continue. Under the direction of FEMA, USACE serves as the lead agency providing public works and engineering support to state and local governments responding to major disasters.
“We are working in coordination with the state and FEMA to provide technical assistance and supplies,” said George Minges, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Louisville District Emergency Management Chief. “We currently have 18 personnel performing assessments throughout eastern Kentucky, we have provided more than 11,500 sandbags to the state, and we are prepared and ready to provide additional support, if needed.”
The technical assistance Louisville District is providing for the Commonwealth includes debris assessments, inspections of critical public facilities, such as water treatment plants and schools, engineer assessments of bridges, roads and culverts and technical monitoring of debris removal in streams and waterways.
The district had a debris expert embedded at the State Emergency Operations Center in Frankfort, Kentucky, with a technical assistance team of five experts conducting joint damage assessments throughout the 12 affected counties alongside FEMA and Kentucky Emergency Management personnel.
Additional teams of engineers from USACE’s Louisville and Huntington districts are performed road and bridge infrastructure assessments to support the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet in coordination with the Kentucky Army National Guard.
“It is heartbreaking to see the Commonwealth dealing with yet another natural disaster,” said Louisville District Commander Col. Eric Crispino. “There has only been a short reprieve from the most recent disaster and follow-on recovery efforts in Mayfield, Kentucky, but our Emergency Management team has the muscle memory to respond accordingly to meet the needs of our stakeholders. Our team has strong relationships with our state and federal partners, and we are fully prepared and ready to respond.”