National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce

Bertram Thomas Combs was born August 13, 1911 in Manchester, Kentucky. One of seven kids, he was very intelligent and skipped grades to graduate from high school as valedictorian at the age of 15.

In the early 1930s he worked for the state highway department where he earned enough money to go to the University of Kentucky’s College of Law. He graduated 2nd in his class in 1937 and was admitted to the bar. He briefly returned to Clay County to practice law before moving to a law firm in Prestonburg in 1938. 

In World War II he was sent to the Philippines where, as a lieutenant, he was chief of the War Crimes Investigation Department. At the end of the conflict he was awarded a Bronze Star for apprehending and prosecuting Japanese war criminals. He then returned to practicing law in Prestonburg.

His first political position was as City Attorney for Prestonburg in 1950. The following year he won a spot on the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

In 1955 Combs was selected to run for governor against A.B. “Happy" Chandler. Combs’ inexperience, uninspiring oratory, and suggestion to raise taxes were significant factors in his defeat. He returned to practicing law in Prestonburg.

Four years later Combs ran again for governor, this time winning by a landslide.  He was Kentucky's 50th governor, the first governor from eastern Kentucky in over 30 years, and the Commonwealth’s first governor who was a World War II veteran.

While governor, he:
•    Increased public school funds by 50%
•    Established the state community college system
•    Significantly increased funding for highways
•    Enabled major renovations of the state parks
•    Formed Kentucky’s first Human Rights Commission and ordered the desegregation of all public accommodations

After leaving office Combs returned to practicing law in Prestonburg. He spent the next couple of decades involved in politics and law interests. He was instrumental in the creation of 1990’s  Kentucky Education Reform Act. The act was aimed at equalizing funding among school districts and implementing strict accountability standards.

On December 3, 1991, after calling his wife to let her know he would be late coming home, Combs left his Lexington law office about 5:30 pm. After several hours passed he was reported missing. Law enforcement and hundreds of local people searched for the former governor. The following day his partially submerged car was spotted in the swollen Red River near Rosslyn in Powell County just several hundred feet from the parkway that bore his name. Temperatures had been in the 30s when Combs drove into the floodwaters. The rain that had been falling changed to snow overnight as the mercury fell into the 20s. Combs' body was found the next day, about a quarter mile downstream of his car, still clinging to a tree root on the edge of the stream. He was not wearing his coat or shoes, possibly from trying to swim to safety. He was 80 years old, and is buried in Beech Creek Cemetery in Manchester.

On December 1, 1991 a stationary front stretched from Texas, through the Tennessee Valley, to Massachusetts. Clouds and rain were widespread along and north of the front. On the 2nd, low pressure developed and rode up the front from the Gulf of Mexico, reaching the eastern Great Lakes on the 3rd. The combination of this low, the front it was on, and a trough of low pressure reaching from the low back to the Louisiana coast, caused heavy rain throughout the region. 

From the 1st to the 4th three to six inches of drenching rains fell on central and eastern Kentucky, including Powell County. Flooding was rampant as low spots filled with water and streams overflowed. One person drowned in floodwaters in Harlan County on the 1st, and there was another fatality in Rockcastle County on the 2nd. The Red River at Clay City rose above flood stage early on the morning of the 3rd.

Slade received 5.26" of rain during the first four days of December 1991, which to this day remains the record rainfall amount for December 1-4 by more than three and a half inches. On the 3rd-4th alone Natural Bridge State Park received 2.75" and Slade 2.96" of pouring rain. The rain changed to light snow on the 4th as cold air swept in behind the system and temperatures fell into the teens and 20s.


Surface weather map on the morning of the 3rd, showing low pressure over the eastern Great Lakes with a cold front dropping to the south and trough trailing to the southwest. Purple colors on this map show well above normal rainfall across much of the eastern third of the United States in conjunction with the slow-moving front. A close-up of Kentucky's percent of normal rainfall for December 1-4, 1991.
Actual rainfall amounts across Kentucky. Some locations in central and eastern parts of the state received record rainfall for the four day period. The Red River downstream at Clay City rose rapidly as the heavy rains began on December 1. The NWS weather observer stationed five miles northeast of Slade recorded 2.96" of rain on the 3rd-4th after 2.30" of rain having already fallen on the 1st-2nd.