COFFEYVILLE, Kan. (AP) – Nearly two weeks after a flood forced residents from their homes, they returned Wednesday to find oil dripping from window screens and saturating carpets and furniture.
The oily gunk clung to nearly everything – coating walls up to 8 feet high – in buildings on the east side of this southeast Kansas town of 16,000.
Between 2,500 to 3,000 of the town’s residents were displaced, and for many it was the first time they were allowed home since evacuations began June 30. The rain-swollen Verdigris River topped its banks and oil spilled from the Coffeyville Resources refinery, mixing with raw sewage and other waste to create a toxic soup.
“I cried. I cried like a baby,” homeowner Cindy White said. “The whole inside of my house is covered in oil – anywhere you look.” The smell of rotting food combined with oil and chemical fumes, creating a nauseating odor. “It has that death smell everywhere,” Mike Manley told his brother over his cell phone as he took a break from hauling out the few salvageable items from his two-story home.
The stench in his house was so bad that Manley tossed his air mask and went to the refinery, where he works, to get a respirator. He was among the luckier ones, because he had brought family pictures and papers to the second story before the levees were breached. Many of his neighbors did not stay long Wednesday; their belongings and furniture were reduced to trash.
Block after block, red placards on doors marked the fate of each house: “Unsafe. Enter at Your Own Risk! Do Not Occupy!”
The water ripped out entire landscapes and farm fields. In places, only the highest treetops were unscathed, the decaying brown leaves below still coated with mud.
Flies and mosquitoes swarmed in houses where emergency responders had left doors and windows open because of toxic mold, which depleted indoor oxygen levels.
The mold was growing in thick layers on walls, furniture and other possessions strewn around floors by swirling floodwaters. Most had no flood insurance, because the area was designated a flood zone and the levees had protected them for decades.
The refinery, which has been sued by some property owners, has said it will help repair the damage but residents do not know how much assistance it will provide.
“My heart has been broken. … We worked hard on our home. Nothing will ever stop the pain,” White said.
She bought her house just a little over a year ago and had done extensive renovations. The last of the siding went up the day of the flood. The new carpet was a little over a month old. All her beloved rose bushes, and even the angel statues she had put up for each of her grandchildren, are gone.
Tears rolled down the cheeks of Carol Phelps as she stood outside her restaurant, the Cactus Grill, clutching a pair of yellow rubber boots. She has owned this restaurant since 1994 and about 20 people worked for her.
“What do you do with your life now? I am 62 years old. Who would want me to work for them?” Phelps said. “It’s my life. And now my life is gone.”