Gabriel Hensley, a father of five who stopped to help an injured driver and was later swept away by floodwaters himself was found dead this week, as the storm damage across eastern Kentucky complicates efforts to find the many people still unaccounted for.
“He was a hero,” his wife, Macy, told CNN. “He was the one that was out helping people instead of worrying about himself.”
Hensley, 30, is among at least 38 people whose deaths were connected to the late July floods. Heavily damaged infrastructure has made some communities nearly impossible to access, and accounting for everyone will likely be a weekslong process, Gov. Andy Beshear said.
Many who survived the floods are finding themselves in destroyed communities. Scores of people have lost their homes. Some remain stranded because of washed-out roads, without access to clean water or electricity, unable to reach loved ones because of lost cell service and unable to receive critical supplies, including medication.
And as those communities struggle to recover, they face another weather threat this week: scorching heat. A heat advisory was issued for eastern Kentucky – including the areas hit hardest by the floods – from noon Wednesday to Thursday night, according to the National Weather Service.
Beshear announced eight cooling centers will be open across the region, warning residents weather conditions will be “really hot and really dangerous.”
‘He just wanted to get home’
As some communities begin picking up the pieces, others are grieving the loss of family and friends.
Hensley, the father of five, had just finished his shift at coal mines in Perry County early Thursday morning when he began making his way home. But the rising waters quickly made his usual return route impassable, his wife said.
He instead took an alternative route, which led him to the scene of an accident. The driver of a four-wheeler was injured after floodwaters spun him off his vehicle, Hensley told his wife on the phone.
“All (Hensley) could say is ‘he’s bleeding, he’s bleeding,’” Macy said.
Without second thought, Hensley drove to his brother-in-law’s house, which was nearby, to ask for help for the wounded driver. But when the two went back, they couldn’t find him despite a lengthy search, Chase Williams, Hensley’s brother-in-law said.
They decided to help get Hensley home safely, Williams said. Hensley would drive them as far down the road – and as close to home – as possible, and then, Hensley would walk to the other side of some hills, where a friend was waiting to take him home to his family. The brother-in-law would take Hensley’s truck back to his home for safekeeping.
“We got down the road a little bit but in a matter of minutes the water rose up enough where it picked up the truck and took us both into the creek,” Williams said.
Williams escaped through the passenger door, using a tree to lift himself and make it up to the creek’s bank, where he was able to use his phone’s flashlight to begin signaling for help.
Neighbors who saw the flash responded and the group began searching for Hensley.
“We looked for Gabe for a very long time that night but we could never find him,” Williams said.
Hensley’s body was discovered Sunday. The children he leaves behind include a 10-week-old son.
“He was a family man,” his wife said. “No matter the storm. No matter how bad it got. He just wanted to get home to his home and family.”
Lives altered ‘at the blink of an eye’
Beshear has called the disaster “one of the most devastating deadly floods that we have seen in our history.”
“This hit such a huge area impacting thousands of people,” the governor told CNN Tuesday.” The way this water came in … it swept some people miles away from where they were taken, and it’s going to be a process that will take weeks to account for everybody.”
It’s going to take even longer to rebuild the flooded communities, the governor has said.
“Pictures belongings, memorabilia, things that kids made when they were growing up, and at the blink of an eye that’s all gone,” Nee Jackson, the Emergency Management Director for Pike County, told CNN. “I was at a house the other evening. Folks had taken quite a few things out, … they were trying to dry pictures and things from their marriage, really sad things that you can’t replace.”
Roughly 30 to 40 bridges were washed out or are inaccessible in the county, Jackson said.
In neighboring Letcher County, in the city of Fleming-Neon, residents are concerned over access to clean, running water. The City Hall was destroyed, with more than a foot of mud still covering its insides Tuesday. The town bank, pharmacy and post office were all flooded, which means locals – many of whom are older and still get paychecks and retirement checks through the mail – are now struggling to access their money and medication, Mayor Susan Polis told CNN.
The floods also destroyed the sole grocery store in the small community of Isom, one of the store’s owners told CNN.
Gwen Christon, 67, who owns the IGA grocery store with her husband, said the waters completely contaminated and ruined everything.
“Our produce case, dairy case and frozen food cases were thrown all over the store. Our shelving that holds our grocery products had fallen and groceries were everywhere,” Christon said. “Machines were floating.”
She told CNN they lost about $250,000 in inventory, but are determined to reopen.
“I do want to reopen because the next grocery store is 12 miles away and the other one is 25 miles away,” Christon said. “People depend on this store.”
In Clay County, Judge/Executive John Johnson said there are between 100 and 125 miles of damage reported, and officials are working to rebuild roads.
Beshear on Wednesday issued an emergency order to make it easier for flood victims in 13 eastern Kentucky counties to replace lost driver’s licenses and other important documents at no cost, the governor’s office announced.
Some schools in eastern Kentucky were also destroyed while others with damage are expected to delay the start of their school year, Kentucky Department of Education spokesperson Toni Tatman told CNN.
Tatman expects local schools boards in roughly 11 affected public school districts will modify start days for the upcoming academic year. Many of the impacted schools were scheduled to welcome students back next week. Now, start dates will likely vary depending on individual districts and schools.
As soon “as the immediate needs of food, shelter, and clothing are identified and met and power and water services are restored, districts are beginning to plan their return to school,” Tatman said.
Fundraising to help those impacted by the flooding have been underway, including one hosted by the University of Kentucky’s men’s basketball team.
The team held a three-hour open practice at its arena in Lexington in conjunction with a telethon for flood relief hosted by the Red Cross and WLEX. Donations were accepted at the door, by phone and online, and by the end of the session more than $2 million had been raised, the school said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated who was driving Gabriel Hensley’s truck when it went into the creek. Hensley was driving.
CNN’s Jarrod Wardwell, Artemis Moshtaghian, Dianne Gallagher, Amanda Musa and Homero DeLaFuente contributed to this report.