July 5 Marks 75th Anniversary of Kentucky's Worst Flash Flood

 
Rainfall Estimate Map from 1939 Flood from Department of Interior Field Survey
Catastrophic flash flooding occurred across eastern Kentucky during the overnight hours of July 4 to July 5, 1939 as 2.5 to 9 inches of rain fell in a short period of time. The Red Cross reported that flooding affected 21 counties in eastern Kentucky, with 79 people losing their lives (52 in Breathitt County, 25 in Rowan County and 2 in Lewis County). The most disastrous flash flooding occurred in Breathitt and Rowan counties. It was reported that in some places a wall of water up to 22 feet swept through the narrow valleys, with the majority of the rise coming in as little as 15 minutes. In the Lexington Leader, Kentucky Gov. A.B. Chandler described the flooding as probably the “worst calamity of its kind to ever visit Kentucky.” 

Up to 9 inches of rain was believed to have fallen in northern Breathitt County, with the worst flash flooding occurring along Frozen Creek. The official Red Cross report indicated 52 lives were lost in Breathitt County. The Vancleve area felt the full force of the flood with the Kentucky Mountain Bible Institute (now the Kentucky Mountain Bible College) being completely destroyed. In addition 44 houses and 60 barns were swept away by the raging flood waters.

In Morehead in Rowan County, it was reported that the water rose 10 to 15 feet in less than 30 minutes, and Triplett Creek crested at a record 21.34 feet. The official Red Cross report indicated 25 lives were lost in Rowan County. Water on Railroad Street in Morehead varied from 4 to 10 feet in depth at the height of the flood and it was reported 200 structures were damaged or destroyed in Morehead.

An excellent detailed analysis of the event can be found in the publication Dep. of Interior, Geological Survey, Water Supply Paper 967-B Notable Floods of 1939, Part 2. Flood of July 5, 1939 in Eastern Kentucky.

References: Jackson Times Newspaper; Lexington Leader Newspaper; The Kentucky Mountain Bible College website; Eastern Kentucky Floods of 1939 – Official Report of Relief Operations – American Red Cross; Dep. of Interior, Geological Survey, Water Supply Paper 967-B Notable Floods of 1939, Part 2. Flood of July 5, 1939 in Eastern Kentucky

Home Overturned from Triplett Creek Flood, Rowan County
(photo taken from Dep. of Interior, Geological Survey, Water Supply Paper 967-B Notable Floods of 1939, Part 2. Flood of July 5, 1939 in Eastern Kentucky)
Car washed down Frozen Creek, Breathitt County
(photo courtesy BreathittCounty.com)

Daily Weather Map for July 5, 1939 courtesy NOAA Central Library Data Imaging Project
(Clicking on the map will open up a large PDF version.)



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