BUCKHORN, Ky. – Devastated communities across eastern Kentucky began digging out Sunday as the state’s death toll rose to 26 and another round of storms threatened to expand the historic flooding.
Dozens of people remained unaccounted for, and some areas were inaccessible to search-and-rescue teams. Spotty cellphone service added to the chaos.
Signs of survival and heroism were everywhere, Gov. Andy Beshear said.
“Many people that have lost everything, but they’re not even getting goods for themselves, they’re getting them for other people in their neighborhoods, making sure that their neighbors are OK,” Beshear said.
Excessive runoff from showers and thunderstorms Sunday and Monday could result in additional flooding of rivers, creeks and streams across much of central and eastern Kentucky, the National Weather Service warned. Rainfall rates of up to 2 inches an hour could spark flash flooding, especially in areas that see repeated rounds of thunderstorms.
Hard-hit counties, including Floyd, Knott and Perry, were under alert. Power, water, shelter and cell service are major issues in some communities, Beshear said. The flooding overwhelmed neighborhoods where people didn’t have much to begin with, he said, and a heat wave forecast this week will deepen the suffering.
The flooding caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damage and displaced hundreds of people, he said.
“We want to make sure that we wrap our arms around our eastern Kentucky brothers and sisters and make sure that they are OK,” Beshear said. “We will be there for you today, tomorrow, next week, next year. We are not going anywhere. We are going to help you rebuild.”
Beshear asked that people donate cleaning supplies or water or donate directly to the state flood relief fund, where 100% of donations go to Kentuckians affected.
►In eastern Kentucky: Flooding brings up memories of previous disasters
►Where is the flooding? See photos, drone videos of the devastation
The hardest hit areas of eastern Kentucky received almost a foot of rain late last week. The North Fork of the Kentucky River reached 20.9 feet in Whitesburg, more than 6 feet over the previous record, and crested at a record 43.5 feet in Jackson, National Weather Service meteorologist Brandon Bonds said.
The rains of Sunday and Monday won’t be the end of it, the weather service warned. Thunderstorms are possible Tuesday, as well as Thursday through Saturday.
A dozen shelters opened for flood victims across the state drew 388 occupants Sunday, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 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 fast to establish additional shelter options,” Beshear said.
The state plans to work with area hotels to pay room costs for displaced residents – and to cover funeral expenses for people killed in the floods.
More than 1,200 rescues took place. State police posts got calls from people unable to contact family and friends. The National Guard was called out and is helping first responders go door to door to find as many people as possible, Beshear said. The heavy rains make it difficult, and some people cannot be reached, he said.
Damage to critical infrastructure challenges rescuers. Scores of bridges are out and roads washed away, making it hard to access communities to deliver desperately needed water and other necessities.
“The next couple days are going to be hard,” Beshear said. “We’ve got rain, and maybe even a lot of rain that is going to hit the same areas.”
When her home in Whitesburg was flooded Thursday, Chloe Adams, 17, put her dog, Sandy, in a plastic container and swam 70 yards to safety on a neighbor’s roof, waiting for hours until daylight before a relative in a kayak arrived and removed them from harm’s way.
“She is a hero. I love you Chloe. You are simply amazing,” her father, Terry, wrote on Facebook in a post that included a photo of his daughter sitting barely above the floodwaters, clinging to the dog. “We lost everything today … everything except what matters most.”
In southeastern Kentucky, small mountain towns that were difficult to reach because fallen trees or high water blocked roads began to dig out Sunday. In Buckhorn, a Perry County hamlet of about 130 people, flooding from a branch of the Middle Fork of the Kentucky River carried away cars and destroyed homes Wednesday and Thursday.
At Buckhorn School, a community gathering point that dates to the early 1900s where more than 300 students are drawn from across the mountainous region, torrents of water and debris that rose from Squabble Creek, which runs alongside the school, smashed walls, broke windows and tore the parking lot asphalt into pieces two weeks before the school year was to begin.
Like other schools in the region, the county K-12 Buckhorn public school serves as an important hub of resources 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 surveyed the damage for the first time Saturday after water receded from a road leading to her home in a town 20 miles away.
In a nearby neighborhood along the creek, where generators hummed Saturday, Teresa Engle, 33, said her two kids, Haley, 8, and EJ, 6, would probably attend another school.
Engle said she was happy to be alive. In the early hours of Thursday, she said, her family was trapped by the roaring waters that reached their door but left it intact. Others were less fortunate.
“We could just see cars and houses going by,” she said. “I’ve never been so terrified.”
On Saturday, her daughter gave away a stuffed animal and a pair of boots to a neighbor’s child whose home had been destroyed.
Buckhorn School teachers and students handed food, water and supplies to families in need.
“Some kids had homes washed away,” said high school teacher Jalen Cooper, 27, explaining that some were staying 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 Lane.” Each house is painted a different color, but the homes were reduced to mangled heaps of cinder blocks and destroyed possessions. Some residents retreated to the fire department building at a higher elevation as the raging creek caused unprecedented destruction.
“It never got like this before,” Bert Combs, 58, said as he stood shirtless, peering at the creek and what was left of Rainbow Lane. The rain, he said, “just kept coming.”
The state must “build back stronger” to compensate for more intense storms driven 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 drawing bipartisan support is a good start, Beshear said.
“The infrastructure is so expensive,” he told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “If we truly want to be more resilient, it is going to take a major federal investment, as well as here in the state. We’re ready to do our part.”
The Biden administration added individual assistance to the president’s Major Disaster Declaration to help the people of eastern Kentucky who “have lost everything,” noting recovery will be long-term.
“I’m taking more action to help the families being displaced and lives lost,” President Joe Biden said in a statement.
FEMA said the individual assistance can 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.
Contributing: Lucas Aulbach, Louisville Courier Journal; The Associated Press
Bacon reported from Arlington, Virginia.