The death toll rose to 30 on Monday, Governor Andy Beshear told a press conference in Frankfurt, adding: “There are hundreds of people missing, at a minimum.”
“We just don’t have a good understanding of that. I wish we knew that – there are a lot of reasons why it’s almost impossible,” he said. “But I want to make sure that we don’t give false hope or misinformation.”
Last week’s floods swelled roads, destroyed bridges and washed away entire homes, displacing thousands of Kentuckians, the governor previously said. Vital electricity, water and road infrastructure was also destroyed. Some of it has yet to be restored, though cell service is back in some of the hardest-hit areas of the state, the governor said, which could help people connect with loved ones. they haven’t contacted yet.
“I’ve lived here in this town for 56 years and I’ve never seen water like this,” Tracy Neice, mayor of Hindman, Kentucky, told CNN, saying her town’s main street looked like a stretch of river where one could go rafting. “It was just devastating to all of our businesses, all of our offices.”
Reading a list of those killed in each county at a press conference on Sunday, Beshear became visibly emotional when he reached for four dead children in Knott County. They were identified to CNN by their aunt as siblings Chance, 2; Nevaeh, 4 years old; Riley Jr., 6; and Madison, 8.
“It says ‘minors,'” the governor said, looking at the list. “They’re kids. The oldest is in second grade,” Beshear said.
The children – described as sweet, funny and adorable – died after the family’s mobile home flooded last week, forcing them to seek refuge on the roof, their aunt, Brandi Smith, told CNN on Friday.
“They were hanging on to it,” Smith said of her sister and partner. “The water got so strong it washed them away.”
Sixteen of the deaths occurred in Knott County, about 130 miles southeast of Lexington, according to the governor’s office. Seven people were killed in Breathitt County, two in Clay County, two in Letcher County and three in Perry County.
The governor thinks recovery teams “are going to be finding bodies for weeks,” he told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, “many of them swept hundreds of yards, maybe more than a quarter of a mile from where they last stood.”
More rain forecasts
Officials are “still in search and rescue mode,” Lieutenant Governor Jacqueline Coleman told CNN on Monday, “because there is so much water.”
“All of our national roads are passable,” she said, but “we still have secondary roads and broken country roads, and our bridges are out of order. So it is very difficult to get to some of the places the most remote”.
In Perry County, as many as 50 bridges are damaged and inaccessible, according to County Executive Judge Scott Alexander.
“That means there’s someone living on the other side or several families living on the other side that we still can’t access by road,” Alexander said.
“If things weren’t tough enough for the people of this area, it’s raining right now,” Beshear said Monday.
A flood watch will be in effect overnight, Monday 9 p.m. through Tuesday 9 a.m. Forecasts call for thunderstorms and potential precipitation rates of 1 to 2 inches per hour. Heavy downpours could cause excessive runoff and “result in flooding of rivers, streams, creeks and other low-lying, flood-prone places,” the weather service said.
Region in need of resources
Kentucky State Police are still actively searching for missing residents in multiple counties and are asking families to notify law enforcement if their loved one is missing.
In the meantime, state officials are immediately focusing on providing food, water and shelter for people who have been forced to flee their homes.
Power outages and storm damage left 22 water systems operating in limited capacity, a news release from the governor’s office said Sunday. More than 60,000 water service connections are either without water or on a boil advisory, he said.
Officials overseeing recovery efforts say bottled water, cleaning supplies and relief fund donations are among the resources most needed as the region works towards short- and long-term recovery. FEMA provides semi-trailers filled with water to several counties.
“A lot of these places have never been flooded. So if they’ve never been flooded, these people won’t have flood insurance,” Hazard’s mayor told CNN on Saturday, in the Kentucky, Donald Mobelini. “If they lose their house, it’s a total loss. There won’t be an insurance check to help with that. We need cash donations,” he said, referring to a state relief funds.
The federal government has approved relief funding for several counties. FEMA is also accepting individual applications for disaster assistance from impacted tenants and homeowners in Breathitt, Clay, Knott, Letcher and Perry counties, the governor said. On Monday, he called for a number of other affected counties to be made eligible.
Communities face irreparable damage
Although the recovery effort was still in the search and rescue phase over the weekend, Beshear told a Saturday press conference that he believed casualties would be “in the range of tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars”.
“This is one of the most devastating and deadly floods we have seen in our history,” Beshear told NBC on Sunday. “It wiped out areas where people didn’t have much to start with.”
And it wasn’t just personal property washed away by the floodwaters. A building housing archival film and other materials in Whitesburg was hit, with water submerging an irreplaceable collection of historic films, videotapes and audio recordings that documented Appalachia.
“We’re working as hard and as fast as we can to try to salvage all of this material…I don’t think the full impact has totally hit me yet. I think I don’t really want to think about it,” Pickering said. She noted that the Smithsonian and other institutions have reached out to offer help.
The significant loss the Kentuckians are experiencing will likely also have a mental impact, Frances Everage, a therapist and 44-year-old resident of the town of Hazard told CNN. While her home was spared, she said some of her friends had damaged homes or lost their entire farms.
“When you put your blood and sweat and tears into something and see it torn apart before your eyes, there’s going to be a grieving process,” Everage said. “This community will rebuild and everything will be fine, but the impact on mental health is going to be significant.”
Sara Smart, Andy Rose, Lauren Lee, Raja Razek, Mike Valerio, Mark Biello, Cole Higgins, Robert Shackelford, Chris Boyette, Aya Elamroussi, Dakine Andone, Caitlin Kaiser and CNN’s Tom Sater contributed to this report.