O n Wednesday, May 26, 2004, the headlines reflected life as normal in Henry County. New Castle wasn’t yet raising water rates, it wasn’t your daddy’s football, and one city was considering a bicycle patrol.
A page of photos touting the revival of Eminence Day depicted smiling residents waving from from a convertible, barbecuing and gliding down a slide barefooted. The page proclaimed“Eminence Day 2004 hit town on Saturday, May 22.”
What a difference a day makes.
In the early evening hours of Thursday, May 27, what hit Eminence and other communities throughout the county was a combination of storms that included a tornado, straight line winds of 80 to 100 miles per hour and eight inches of rain.
Emergency Management director Bruce Owens received word of strong winds mid-evening, but originally thought the severity might be moderate.
“The judge and I decided to check it out, not knowing the extent of the damage,” he said. “Then we realized we couldn’t get from New Castle to Eminence (because of downed trees and power lines). We had to go around and through Smithfield.”
The tornado and straight-line winds destroyed houses, ripped trees up by the roots, depositing them on roofs and roads, downed power lines and left a narrow but absolute swath of destruction.
Brent and Owens were astonished by the extent of the damage.
“Roofs were crushed, limbs and wires down,” Owens said. “It was dark and dangerous.”
“The damage was throughout the county at all levels,” Brent said. “Eminence took a direct hit from a tornado and straight line winds, Point Pleasant and Pleasureville sustained significant damage and Sulphur got eight inches of rain in a couple hours.”
A letter to the editor published in the June 16 issue of the Henry County Local addressed the total loss of Randy and Mona Dowden’s Eminence home.
“Our family will survive this ordeal. We will rebuild in the exact same location as before. We would not think of living anywhere else. We are already in the best community around,” Dowden wrote.
The evening of the storms the Dowden family and their children Ethan, 12 and Grace Ann, 9 headed out to the Eminence Independent Schools spring concert. Mona Dowden said Ethan played in the middle school band and Grace Ann sang with the elementary school.
“It was Ethan’s 12th birthday,” Dowden said.
When they arrived, there already were tornado warnings for the area. Dowden said the community had experienced a lot of storm and tornado watches that spring. “A lot of people stayed at the school, but we live real close so we came on home,” she said. “We never expected what happened.”
When the F-2 tornado ripped through the heart of Eminence shortly after 8 p.m. the Dowdens were huddled together in a corner of the basement under their brick ranch home on Point Pleasant Road.
The family monitored television coverage of the storms upstairs until Randy herded her and the two children into the basement.
“My husband, being a man, just had to watch things,” she said. “When he saw the big blue spruce in the yard bend down to the ground and didn’t come up, and the windows contracted he got us all into the corner.”
Dowden said there was nothing on her mind at that point except living through the moment. Once she was confident they had made it through the storm, all she thought of was escape.
“We felt like we needed to get out of the house,” Dowden said. “Randy’s father was by himself next door. It was pitch-black. We couldn’t see anything.”
They got the children out and located extra flashlights purchased for Ethan’s planned birthday camp out later that evening.
Dowden said they found her father-in-law Glen Dowden safe and sound, but both houses in ruins.
“Our roof was gone, the doors exploded and the garage door was twisted like a bread tie,” she said.
Randy Dowden found tools and wrestled the garage door open wide enough to extricate a vehicle. Dowden said they decided to make their way to the home of Mona’s mother, Betty Robison, in Cropper.
“We crossed through fields because there was a big tree down on one side and power lines in the road,” she said. “Randy walked ahead holding a flashlight while I drove.”
The family didn’t arrive at Robison’s house until after midnight. They had no way to contact Robison as cell phones were not working, but Robison had not been worried about Mona’s family in Eminence.
“Mom thought, ‘Of all the people in Eminence, what are the chances it hit them,’” Dowden said.
Five years later the Dowdens have rebuilt, as they wrote they would, in exactly the same spot.
“We kept the same basement and built right on top,” she said. “We added about 300 square feet and changed several things. We moved back in two weeks before Christmas (2004).”
Damage in Sulphur
Owens said residents of Sulphur could not have foreseen what was coming their way.
A malfunction in the culvert under the CSX railroad bridge caused massive flooding to four or five homes located about a hundred feet from the Little Kentucky River.
On one side of the railroad tracks that virtually split the town in half, everything was intact. On the other side residents showed him watermarks three feet up the wall. “It looked like two different worlds,” he said. “That street was just like a river.”
Brent said the flooded homes actually were situated away from the creek and were put at risk when the culvert stopped up.
“That was a very scary time for them,” he said. “One gentleman took his children out the front door on an air mattress through four feet of water.”
Brent said controversy over emergency response in Sulphur swirled even as floodwaters ebbed.
Owens said that when he spoke with fire personnel assigned to the area he was told everything was okay in Sulphur.
“We got a big black eye over there to be honest with you,” he said.
By the time the judge-executive and emergency management director arrived on Saturday with representatives from the Salvation Army and Red Cross, Owens said the damage was done.
“I got feedback that nobody had been to Sulphur,” Brent said. “I do understand they felt they were overlooked, but it wasn’t intentional.”
In the June 2, 2004, Local, Sulphur resident Wayne Sadler said his home was soaked with three to four feet of standing water. It damaged the floor, walls and furniture. He said the creek water left behind a layer of foul-smelling mud.
According to Brent, Sadler was able to rebuild, and chose a much taller foundation.
Brent said he took away a lesson from the experience.
“Because of Sulphur, if we get a report from any area,” he said, “we make sure a responder looks with (his) own eyes.”
“We had damage to infrastructure all over the county,” he said. “There were 40-50 miles of county gravel roads washed out and a bridge and culvert washed out. A hillside on Mt. Gilead Road gave out and washed away the road.”
Brent said because telephone and electric companies share poles, utilities had to coordinate their efforts as well.
“We had the same issue with this latest ice storm,” he said. “It was the same with the tornado. The electric company may have to wait while the telephone company puts up a new pole.”
Owens said although nature is unpredictable as well as uncontrollable, Henry County does have a few new tricks up its sleeves.
The OneCall system was first used during last winter’s storms. The system alerts residents with listed phone numbers, as well as cell phone users who have signed up for the service, to emergency situations.
“It really comes in handy,” he said. “It reinforces our warning system.”
Owens said the number of emergency sirens also has increased. There are eight or nine throughout the county that sound simultaneously when there is a severe weather warning. “For years we only had one for each firehouse,” he said. “We are trying to get a couple more from Homeland Security,”
Owens said his agency as well as others continue to work toward total preparedness for whatever Mother Nature has in store for the county.
“I’m sure we learned some things,” he said, “and at least improved our warning systems. There’s nothing much you can do about a tornado.”
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