The death toll in flood-stricken Kentucky has risen to 37, Gov. Andy Beshear said Monday afternoon, as rescue workers continue to comb the region for hundreds of missing people, unable to access areas left isolated after floodwater washed away bridges and inundated communities.
“We are ending the day with more heartbreaking news out of Eastern Kentucky. We can confirm the death toll has now risen to 37, with so many more still missing,” Beshear tweeted late Monday afternoon. “Let us pray for these families and come together to wrap our arms around our fellow Kentuckians.”
The death toll could still rise further, according to officials, with “hundreds of unaccounted for people” at a minimum, the governor said at a news conference earlier in the day in Frankfort.
“We just don’t have a firm grasp on that. I wish we did – there are a lot of reasons why it’s nearly impossible,” he said. “But I want to make sure we’re not giving either false hope or faulty information.”
The flooding last week swelled over roads, destroyed bridges and swept away entire homes, displacing thousands of Kentuckians, Beshear previously said. Vital electricity, water and roadway infrastructure was also knocked out. Some of it has yet to be restored, though cell service is returning in some of the state’s hardest-hit areas, the governor said, which may help people connect with loved ones they’ve yet to contact.
“I’ve lived here in this town for 56 years, and I have never seen water of this nature,” Tracy Neice, the mayor of Hindman, Kentucky, told CNN, saying his town’s main street looked like a stretch of river where one might go whitewater rafting. “It was just devastating to all of our businesses, all of our offices.”
While reading a breakdown of those killed in each county during a news conference Sunday, Beshear became visibly emotional when he reached four children dead in Knott County. They were identified to CNN by their aunt as siblings Chance, 2; Nevaeh, 4; Riley Jr., 6; and Madison, 8.
“It says ‘minors,’” the governor said looking at the list. “They are children. The oldest one is in second grade,” Beshear said.
The children – described as sweet, funny and lovable – died after the family’s mobile home flooded last week, forcing them to seek shelter on the roof, their aunt, Brandi Smith, told CNN on Friday.
“They were holding on to them,” Smith said of her sister and her partner. “The water got so strong it just washed them away.”
Sixteen of the deaths occurred in Knott County, about 130 miles southeast of Lexington, per 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 believes recovery crews 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 a quarter-mile plus from where they were last.”
More rain in the forecast
Officials are “still in search and rescue mode,” Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman told CNN on Monday, “because there is so much water.”
“All of our state roads are passable,” she said, but “we still have back roads and country roads that are broken off, and our bridges are out. So it’s really difficult to get to some of the most remote places.”
In Perry County, as many as 50 bridges are damaged and inaccessible, according to county Judge Executive Scott Alexander.
“What that means is there’s somebody living on the other side or multiple families living up our holler on the other side that we’re still not able to have road access to,” Alexander said.
Things could get more difficult due to a slight risk of excessive rainfall throughout the region Monday, the National Weather Service said, and with the ground already saturated, more rain could bring yet more flooding.
“If things weren’t hard enough on the people in this region, they’re getting rain right now,” Beshear said Monday.
A flood watch will be in effect overnight, lasting from 9 p.m. Monday to 9 a.m. Tuesday. Forecasts predict thunderstorms and potential rainfall rates of 1 to 2 inches per hour. Heavy downpours could cause excessive runoff and “result in flooding of rivers, creeks, streams, and other low-lying and flood-prone locations,” said the weather service.
Temperatures are expected to rise later this week, hitting the mid-80s and near 90 on Wednesday and Thursday, per the weather service, but it will feel much hotter because of the humidity. The heat indices – the temperature it feels like when heat is combined with humidity – are expected to peak around 100 degrees in some places, leaving rescue crews and displaced people facing oppressive heat as more than 14,000 customers remain without power.
As the climate crisis fuels more frequent extreme weather events, several areas of the US are currently experiencing flash flood risk, including swathes of the desert Southwest, Knoxville, Tennessee, and Tucson, Arizona.
Region in desperate need of resources
Meantime, state officials are immediately focused on getting food, water and shelter to the people who were forced to flee their homes.
Power outages and storm damage left 22 water systems operating in a limited capacity, a Sunday news release from the governor’s office said. More than 60,000 water service connections are either without water or under a boil advisory, it said.
Officials overseeing the recovery efforts say bottled water, cleaning supplies and relief fund donations are among the most needed resources as the region works toward short- and long-term recovery. FEMA is providing tractor trailers full of water to several counties.
“A lot of these places have never flooded. So if they’ve never flooded, these people will not have flood insurance,” the mayor of Hazard, Kentucky, Donald Mobelini told CNN on Saturday. “If they lose their home, it’s total loss. There’s not going to be an insurance check coming to help that. We need cash donations,” he said, referring to a relief fund set up by the state.
Among those without flood insurance is Jessica Willett, a mother who tied herself to her two children using a cord she cut off her vacuum.
“I thought I could try to save us,” she told CNN Monday. “Or, you know, if we didn’t make it, then we could be found all together.”
Willett had no warning when the flooding began, she said. She heard some noises and when she opened her door, the water was there. Eventually, the house was swept off its foundation, and washed about a hundred feet down the road, Willett estimated.
The family finally escaped around 3 or 4 a.m., when Willett left her children and ventured out to wade through the water running across the road to see how deep it was. Once she knew she could get through safely, she went back for them.
Asked what she’ll do next, Willett said, “I don’t know.”
“We have insurance but we don’t have flood insurance,” she said, holding back tears. “Because we weren’t in a flood zone. So I don’t know what to do.”
Beshear established a Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief Fund to pay the funeral expenses of flood victims and raise money for those impacted by the damage. As of Sunday morning, the fund had received more than $1 million in donations, according to the governor.
The federal government has approved relief funding for several counties. FEMA is also accepting individual disaster assistance applications from impacted renters and homeowners in Breathitt, Clay, Knott, Letcher and Perry counties, the governor said. On Monday he requested a number of other impacted counties be made eligible.
Beshear believes the losses will be “in the tens if not the hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said over the weekend.
The extensive loss Kentuckians are suffering will likely also take a mental toll, Frances Everage, a therapist and 44-year resident of the city of Hazard told CNN. While her home was spared, she said some of her friends have damaged homes or lost their entire farms.
“When you put your blood, sweat and tears into something and then see it ripped away in front of your eyes, there’s going to be a grieving process,” Everage said. “This community will rebuild and we will be okay, but the impact on mental health is going to be significant.”
CNN’s 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 Tom Sater contributed to this report.