Missy Crovetti panicked Thursday when she was forwarded a photo of her nearly 100-year-old grandma sitting on her bed, partially submerged in the floodwaters that were ravaging eastern Kentucky.
The picture showed Mae Amburgey — or “MomMae,” as Crovetti calls her — wearing capri pants and a turquoise sweater that was already halfway soaked. Amburgey had clasped her hands around her right knee; the lower part of her legs disappeared into the muck. Around her: an overturned dresser, artwork made by her grandson, a pillow topped with one of her shoes and a box of Little Debbie Nutty Buddy bars.
From her home in Green Oaks, Ill., Crovetti, 52, immediately tried calling her grandma but couldn’t get through. She also tried her brother, who’d taken the photo, and her uncle — both of whom were at her grandmother’s house. They didn’t answer, either. She didn’t know whether they were still in the house or whether they’d escaped.
More than 500 miles away, Crovetti did the only thing she could think of to help: She uploaded the photo to Facebook with a plea in the hope that her SOS might reach someone in Letcher County, Ky., who could help her grandmother, who’s either 97 or 98, depending on which family Bible you consult.
“My grandmother, Uncle and Brother are trapped in her house across from the high school if anyone has a boat around that area, the water is about 4 feet deep in the house,” she posted.
She published the post at 1:26 p.m. and hoped it would be enough.
“I was desperate,” she said.
Amburgey, her son and her grandson were but three of thousands of Kentuckians forced to grapple with the effects of torrential rains that pounded the eastern part of the state late last week. Between 14-16 inches of rain hit in a four-day period, transforming idyllic streams and creeks into raging rivers, according to the National Weather Service office in Jackson, Ky. On Tuesday, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, D, said the disaster had killed at least 37 people, displaced hundreds and inflicted “hundreds of millions of dollars” in damage, according to the Associated Press and a YouTube video of the governor. On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Beshear warned that as the floods recede, “we’re going to be finding bodies for weeks.”
Randy Polly, who was across the street from Amburgey’s house during Thursday’s flooding, told The Washington Post he watched floodwaters overtake and kill two people “right in front of me” early Thursday. When he called 911, a dispatcher told him that, even if they weren’t scrambling to field more than 300 calls, rescue workers wouldn’t be able to get to them until the waters receded.
Scads of homes have since been damaged in and around the area, and people are desperate for basic supplies.
“This is a war zone,” Polly said.
Before she knew of any flooding, Crovetti woke up last Thursday and, knowing that forecasters had predicted extremes, checked the weather to see whether they’d been right. But not in her home state of Kentucky. Because her son attends school in Seattle, which was under the threat of a heat wave, she checked the weather for the Pacific Northwest. When Crovetti did, she happened to spot a flood warning for her home state of Kentucky. As she probed further, she realized her relatives in Ermine might be in danger.
Photos posted by her Facebook friends confirmed her hunch. The floodwaters seemed to rise with each photo she saw. Then she started to recognize landmarks in some of the photos and knew that if those places had flooded, her grandmother’s house would have, too. That’s when she knew “my family was in trouble.”
Shortly after, an acquaintance forwarded the photo that her brother, Gregory, had taken of their grandmother.
Although Crovetti couldn’t reach anyone by phone, Polly said a friendly stranger soon came to the family’s aid. Initially, the man couldn’t reach Amburgey’s house because of the floodwaters, which Polly estimated were 20 feet high at one point. But in a second effort, he went upstream and used the current to drift toward the home. After breaking a window, he was able to help Amburgey and the two male relatives out of the house.
Polly, 49, captured the rescue on video and then watched as the four-person party drifted away.
“I didn’t think I’d ever see them again,” Polly told The Post.
About 45 minutes after Crovetti posted the SOS call on Facebook, a relative sent another photo of her grandmother, this time hooked up to oxygen in a hospital. She later learned that her Uncle Larry had been swept away from the other three in their party and had clung to a tree until the anonymous rescuer returned to save him, too. Crovetti said she doesn’t know who the man is and referred to him as “the good Samaritan” and her grandmother’s “guardian angel.”
It’s not a happy ending yet, she said. Her grandmother got pneumonia and suffered a cut to her leg, part of which has gotten infected.
“We just hope she pulls through,” Crovetti said. “She’s got a long road in front of her.”
So does Kentucky, she added.
Crovetti and Polly both highlighted that thousands in eastern Kentucky are suffering through flooding of biblical proportions. Hundreds of homes have been damaged in the Ermine area alone, Polly said. People need basic supplies such as cleaning products and fresh water.
“We need help so bad,” Polly said. “People have no idea what’s going on here.”