HAZARD – It was 50 years ago this week when just over four inches of rain fell on Eastern Kentucky in a span of 24 hours, resulting in what was called then the second worst natural disaster in Hazard’s history, behind the flood of 1957 which ravaged Perry County just six years before.
The Hazard Herald reported on March 14, 1963, that Hazard was among the towns hardest hit in the flood, as the Kentucky River crested at 37 feet, only two feet less than the flood of ’57. Other nearby towns were hit just as hard, including Harlan, situated on the Cumberland River, and Pikeville along the Big Sandy.
“Other smaller towns on every river and stream in East Kentucky fell prey to the engulfing waters, sending thousands from their homes and businesses,” the Herald reported.
Hazard’s downtown area bore the brunt of the storm, as businesses and residences along Main Street were flooded and waters reached Memorial Drive, just below the municipal parking lot.
Lt. Gov. Wilson Wyatt, who toured the area by helicopter as the flood hit its peak on March 12, 1963, requested that 20 counties in the region be declared disaster areas, while officials in Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia made similar requests.
Federal officials formed a task force and were dispatched to the scene, while the Red Cross provided immediate relief to Perry County residents after setting up headquarters at the county courthouse. A Red Cross survey at the time showed 1,127 families affected by the flood.
Just five days later, another flood forced homeowners to evacuate after nearly two inches of rain fell on March 17. A few businesses were also hit, including Hammonds Gulf Service, where owner Charlie Hammonds told the Herald: “We just put the show windows back in that were broken last week and things looking pretty good Saturday night. Then Sunday we got hit again.”
Estimates at the time put the cost of flood recovery in excess of $50 million.