“He was a hero,” his wife, Macy, told CNN. “He was the one helping people instead of worrying about himself.”
Many of those who survived the floods find themselves in destroyed communities. Dozens of people have lost their homes. Some remain stranded due to washed out roads, without access to clean water or electricity, unable to reach loved ones due to loss of cell service, and unable to receive essential supplies, including medicine.
“He just wanted to go home”
As some communities begin to pick up the pieces, others mourn the loss of family and friends.
Hensley, a father of five, had just finished his shift at the Perry County coal mines early Thursday morning when he started driving home. But rising waters quickly made his usual return route impractical, his wife said.
Instead, he took an alternate route, which took him to the scene of an accident. The driver of a four-wheeled vehicle was injured after floodwaters forced him out of his vehicle, Hensley told his wife over the phone.
“All (Hensley) could say is ‘he’s bleeding, he’s bleeding,'” Macy said.
Without a second thought, Hensley drove to his brother-in-law, who was nearby, to ask for help for the injured driver. But when the two returned, they couldn’t find him despite a long search, said Chase Williams, Hensley’s brother-in-law.
They decided to help get Hensley home safely, Williams said. Hensley would lead them as far up the road as possible—and as close to home—as possible, and then Hensley would walk across some hills, where a friend was waiting to take him home to his family. The brother-in-law would drive Hensley’s truck home for safekeeping.
“We took the road a bit, but within minutes the water rose enough to pick up the truck and take us both into the creek,” Williams said.
Williams escaped through the passenger door, using a tree to pull himself up and make his way to the creek bank, where he was able to use his phone’s flashlight to begin calling for help.
Neighbors who saw the flash responded, and the group began to search 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 on 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 was. He just wanted to get home, back to his home and his family.”
Lives changed “in the blink of an eye”
“It affected such a large area, affecting thousands of people,” the governor told CNN on Tuesday. take weeks to account for everyone.”
It will take even longer to rebuild flooded communities, the governor said.
“Pictures, memories, things the kids did when they were growing up, and in the blink of an eye it was all gone,” Pike County Emergency Management Director Nee Jackson told CNN. “I was in a house the other night. People had taken out a lot of things, … they were trying to dry pictures and things from their wedding, really sad things that you can’t replace.”
About 30 to 40 bridges have been washed away or are inaccessible in the county, Jackson said.
In neighboring Letcher County, in the town of Fleming-Neon, residents are concerned about access to clean running water. City Hall was destroyed, with more than a foot of mud still coating its innards on Tuesday. The town’s bank, pharmacy and post office have all been inundated, meaning residents – many of whom are older and still receiving pay and pension checks in the mail – are now struggling to access to their money and their medicine, Mayor Susan Polis told CNN.
Flooding also destroyed the only grocery store in the small community of Isom, one of the store owners told CNN.
Gwen Christon, 67, owner of the IGA grocery store with her husband, said the waters were completely contaminated and had ruined everything.
“Our produce crate, dairy crate and frozen food crate were thrown all over the store. Our shelves that hold our groceries had fallen down and the groceries were everywhere,” Christon said. . “The machines were floating.”
She told CNN they lost about $250,000 in inventory, but were determined to reopen.
“I want to reopen because the next grocery store is 12 miles away and the next one is 25 miles away,” Christon said. “People depend on this store.”
In Clay County, Judge/Executive John Johnson said there were between 100 and 125 miles of reported damage and authorities were working to rebuild roads.
Some eastern Kentucky schools were also destroyed while others damaged are expected to delay the start of their school year, Kentucky Department of Education spokesperson Toni Tatman told CNN.
Tatman expects local school boards in about 11 affected public school districts to change start days for the upcoming school year. Many affected schools were expected to welcome students back next week. Going forward, start dates will likely vary by district and school.
As soon as “immediate food, shelter and clothing needs are identified and met, and electricity and water services are restored, districts begin planning to return to school,” Tatman said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated who was driving Gabriel Hensley’s truck when it entered the creek. Hensley was driving.
CNN’s Jarrod Wardwell, Artemis Moshtaghian, Dianne Gallagher, Amanda Musa and Homero DeLaFuente contributed to this report.