“He was a hero,” his wife, Macy, told CNN. “He was the one that was out helping people instead of worrying about himself.”
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.
‘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. The brother-in-law would drive Hensley 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.
“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’
“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.
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.
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.
CNN’s Jarrod Wardwell, Artemis Moshtaghian, Dianne Gallagher and Amanda Musa contributed to this report.