I was sending files to my USB 512 GB thumb drive so those files are still on my laptop.
Problem: I decided to cut and paste some folders of photos to the thumb drive.
They took a long time like it was actually cutting and pasting.
When it was done the thumb drive had empty folders.
I did not shut machine. Are the cut files still somewhere?
very strange since it took a long time.
That is good news that you were able to recover a good percentage of the photos. Now is the time to back up everything that is important to you. In additional to the original files, you should have at least 2 backups, one of which is stored in a different location (your office, relative's house, cloud storage, etc.)