BUCKHORN, Ky. – Devastated communities in eastern Kentucky began digging on Sunday as the death toll in the state rose to 26 and a new series of storms threatened to extend historic flooding.
Dozens of people remained missing and some areas were inaccessible to search and rescue teams. Flawless cell phone service added to the chaos.
There were signs of survival and heroism everywhere, Governor Andy Beshear said.
“A lot of people who have lost everything, but they don’t even get goods for themselves. They get them for other people in their neighborhood, to make sure their neighbors are okay,” Beshear said.
Excessive runoff from rain and thunderstorms on Sunday and Monday could lead to additional flooding from rivers, creeks and streams across much of central and eastern Kentucky, the National Weather Service warned. Rainfall rates of up to 2 inches per hour can cause flash flooding, especially in areas with repeated thunderstorms.
Hard-hit counties, including Floyd, Knott and Perry, were on alert. Power, water, shelter and cell service are major issues in some communities, Beshear said. The floods engulfed neighborhoods where people didn’t have much to begin with, he said, and the forecast of a heat wave this week will add to the suffering.
The floods caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage and displaced hundreds of people, he said.
“We want to make sure we put our arms around our brothers and sisters in eastern Kentucky and make sure they’re okay,” Beshear said. “We’ll be there for you today, tomorrow, next week, next year. We’re not going anywhere. We’re going to help you rebuild.”
Beshear asked people to donate or donate cleaning supplies or water directly to the state flood fund, with 100% of donations going to affected Kentuckians.
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►Where is the flood? View photos, drone videos of the destruction
Almost a foot of rain; more is coming
The hardest hit areas of eastern Kentucky received nearly a foot of rain late last week. The North Fork of the Kentucky River reached 20.9 feet in Whitesburg, more than 6 feet above the previous record, and reached a record 43.5 feet in Jackson, National Weather Service meteorologist Brandon Bonds said.
The rains from Sunday and Monday will not be the end, the weather service warned. Thunderstorms are possible Tuesday through Saturday.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a dozen shelters opened statewide for flood victims drew 388 occupants on Sunday. About 70 trailers — purchased by the state for use during deadly tornadoes that ripped through western Kentucky in December — were deployed as temporary shelters.
“Yesterday our first travel trailers arrived and we are working quickly to set up additional shelter options,” said Beshear.
The state plans to work with hotels in the area to pay for room costs for displaced residents — and to cover funeral costs for those killed in the floods.
More than 1,200 rescues took place. State police posts received calls from people who were unable to contact family and friends. The National Guard was called in and is helping first responders go door-to-door to find as many people as possible, Beshear said. The heavy rainfall is making it difficult and some people cannot be reached, he said.
Damage to critical infrastructure challenges rescue workers. Numerous bridges have been broken and roads have been washed away, making it difficult to access communities to provide much-needed water and other necessities.
“The next few days are going to be difficult,” Beshear said. “We have rain, and maybe even a lot of rain that will hit the same areas.”
When her Whitesburg home was flooded on Thursday, Chloe Adams, 17, put her dog, Sandy, in a plastic container and swam 70 meters to safety on a neighbor’s roof, waiting hours for daylight before a family member arrived in a kayak. and removed them from the danger zone.
“She’s a hero. I love you Chloe. You’re just amazing,” her father, Terry, wrote on Facebook posted a photo of his daughter barely above the floodwaters, clinging to the dog. “We’ve lost everything today…everything but what’s most important.”
Excavation starts in small towns
In southeastern Kentucky, small mountain villages that were difficult to reach because fallen trees or roads blocked by high water began to be excavated on Sunday. In Buckhorn, a Perry County hamlet of about 130 people that flooded from a tributary of the Middle Fork of the Kentucky River, cars drove away and destroyed homes on Wednesday and Thursday.
At Buckhorn School, a community rallying point dating back to the early 1900s, where more than 300 students from the mountainous area come, water and debris flowing from Squabble Creek, which runs next to the school, smashed walls, windows broke and the tarmac of the parking lot ripped to pieces two weeks before the school year was due to start.
Like other schools in the area, the County K-12 Buckhorn Public School serves as a major resource hub for students whose families live on low incomes, said special education teacher Kristie Combs, 46.
“It’s more than just a school, it’s a community,” said Combs, who first saw the damage Saturday after water receded from a road leading to her home in a town 20 miles away.
In a nearby creek neighborhood where generators were buzzing Saturday, Teresa Engle, 33, said her two children, Haley, 8, and EJ, 6, would likely attend another school.
Engle said she was glad she was alive. In the early hours of Thursday, she said, her family was trapped in the roaring water reaching their door, but left it intact. Others were less fortunate.
“We could just see cars and houses passing by,” she said. “I’ve never been so scared.”
On Saturday, her daughter gave away a stuffed animal and a pair of boots to a neighbor whose house had been destroyed.
Buckhorn School teachers and students handed out food, water, and supplies to families in need.
“Some kids had washed houses,” said high school teacher Jalen Cooper, 27, explaining that some stayed in hotels and others packed in relatives who have generators.
“It’s going to take a long time, a lot of effort and a lot of grit,” he said. “But we know how to push through.”
Knott County had the highest death toll at 14, according to the coroner, including four young siblings. Residents along Troublesome Creek in the community of Fisty call a short stretch of Kentucky Route 550 “Rainbow Avenue.” Each house was painted a different color, but the houses were reduced to mutilated cinder blocks and destroyed possessions. Some residents withdrew to the higher fire station as the raging creek wreaked unprecedented havoc.
“It’s never been this way before,” said Bert Combs, 58, as he peered shirtless at the creek and what was left of Rainbow Lane. The rain, he said, “kept coming.”
The state needs to “build back stronger” to compensate for more intense storms caused by the changing climate, Beshear said. Roads, bridges, culverts, water and wastewater systems and flood walls must be designed to withstand greater intensity, he said.
An infrastructure bill that draws bipartisan support is a good start, Beshear said.
“The infrastructure is so expensive,” he said NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “If we really want to be more resilient, it’s going to take a big federal investment, as well as here in the state. We’re ready to do our part.”
White House rushes aid to Kentucky
The Biden administration has added individual aid to the president’s major disaster declaration to help those in eastern Kentucky who have “lost everything,” noting that the recovery will be long-term.
“I am taking more action to help the families who have been displaced and the lives that have been lost,” President Joe Biden said in a statement.
FEMA said the individual aid could include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster.
Contributors: Lucas Aulbach, Louisville Courier Journal; The The Bharat Express News
Bacon reported from Arlington, Virginia.