Last week’s flooding has killed more than three dozen people in eastern Kentucky, the governor says – and stifling heat will soon compound the challenges for people who are without power and stranded by washed-away roads and bridges.
Temperatures in the region Wednesday and Thursday will climb into the 90s, and because of the humidity it will feel close to 100 degrees, CNN meteorologists say. The National Weather Service issued a heat advisory for the area from noon Wednesday to 8 p.m. Thursday.
“It’s going to get really, really hot, and that is now our new weather challenge,” Gov. Andy Beshear said in a news conference Tuesday morning.
The flooding, which began early Thursday when heavy rain hit an already saturated region, displaced scores of people from their homes, wiped houses from their foundations, snatched away entire livelihoods including farms and businesses, and left residents with catastrophic damage to their properties, vehicles and other belongings.
At least 37 people have died in the flooding, Beshear said Tuesday. The death toll is expected to go up, the governor said.
Beshear for days has said numerous people are unaccounted for, in part because cell phone service was lost – and because the flooding took out rural roads and bridges that are in some cases the only access point for communities in this part of Appalachia.
Finding the missing isn’t the only difficulty. Many people are stranded because of the washed-out roads – and there’s a desperate need to either deliver supplies to them or move them, a resident of flood-hit Knott County says.
“I still have aunts and uncles that are stuck in hollers. They are diabetics. They need insulin,” Knott County resident Zack Hall told CNN on Tuesday morning.
“I went to visit one yesterday – was lucky enough to get up there (and deliver supplies) with an ATV. But there was no road … and that’s what people need to understand, is the infrastructure here is just completely destroyed and it makes relief efforts” difficult, Hall said.
Though cell service is being restored, some areas are still without it, leaving many unable to contact loved ones or emergency services.
The disaster also knocked out essential power and water utilities, which repair crews have been struggling to restore because of dangerous conditions and washed-out roads. More than 5,600 customers in eastern Kentucky were still without power Tuesday evening, according to PowerOutage.us.
More than 18,000 service connections were without water Tuesday and an additional 45,600 were under a boil water advisory, Beshear said.
The power and water outages are especially troubling for those who are stranded and don’t have easy access to supplies, Hall, the Knott County resident, said.
“With the heat, once it dries up for the day, it’s just muggy, humid. … A lot of people on oxygen that don’t have power are already struggling,” Hall said. “I think the worst is still to come if we’re not able to clear paths and get to these people.”
More people with utility terrain vehicles are needed to help in the area, he said.
“If they can just come and help, help us move things, help us clear paths, help us deliver water, food, medicine to people. (And) pull people out that want to leave the area – we just need as many hands on deck as we can have,” Hall said.
In Fleming-Neon, a city in rural, eastern Kentucky, there’s little left besides debris and mud – and the people who are working to clean up. The City Hall was destroyed and everything inside covered by more than a foot of mud.
The town bank, pharmacy and post office were also flooded, which means residents, many of whom are older and still get paychecks and retirement checks through the mail or at the bank, are struggling to access their money and medication, Mayor Susan Polis said.
There is also barely any cell service and the internet is down, making online banking next to impossible.
Access to clean, running water is another major concern.
Road problems make it hard to know how many people are missing, governor says
The infrastructure challenges make it “incredibly hard to get a good, reliable number on those missing,” Beshear told CNN’s Jim Sciutto on Tuesday.
“The way this water came in … it swept some people miles away from where they were taken, and it’s going to be a process that will take weeks to account for everybody,” Beshear said.
More than 1,300 water rescues have been made since the flooding began, Beshear said. Rescuers have been battling the infrastructure difficulties for days as they work to reach trapped residents.
In one stunning video, an 83-year-old woman is seen being airlifted to safety by a Blackhawk helicopter in Breathitt County. A rescue team learned that she and four other family members were trapped in an attic Thursday, Wolfe County Search & Rescue Team spokesperson Drew Stevens told CNN.
The woman was unharmed, Stevens said, but a male family members suffered a broken collar bone and was taken to the hospital. He has since been released.
Some schools destroyed, others damaged
Some schools in eastern Kentucky were destroyed and will need to be rebuilt while others are expected to delay the start of their school year because of the damage they sustained, the state’s education department told CNN Tuesday.
“All school districts in the region are assessing damages to buildings and facilities,” Kentucky Department of Education spokesperson Toni Tatman said in an email. Tatman expects local schools boards in 11 affected public school districts will modify start days for the upcoming academic year.
Many of the impacted schools were scheduled to welcome students back next week. Now, start dates will likely vary depending on individual districts and schools.
As soon “as the immediate needs of food, shelter, and clothing are identified and met and power and water services are restored, districts are beginning to plan their return to school,” Tatman said.
Each school district “will create a plan that works best for their students, staff, the facilities available, etc. and virtual instruction may be a resource some districts may choose to use,” the spokesperson added.
State grieving after several catastrophes
Flooding is just the most recent disaster to strike Kentucky, which has lost more than 16,000 people to the Covid-19 pandemic and is still recovering from a tornado outbreak that tore through the state in December, killing more than 70 people.
Beshear spoke at an event in western Kentucky on Monday for those impacted by the tornadoes and acknowledged that Kentuckians have been impacted across the state by deadly natural disasters.
“The flooding in eastern Kentucky has been hard, just like these tornadoes,” he said, adding that natural disasters “tear at the fabric of who we are.”
“I was at a breaking point the other night because that happens to all of us – it’s OK not to be OK,” Beshear said. “We’re going to get through it because we have to. We don’t have any other choice.”
The death toll from the flooding spans at least five counties and includes four siblings from Knott county who were swept away by the strong current. The children were identified to CNN by their aunt as siblings Chance, 2; Nevaeh, 4; Riley Jr., 6; and Madison, 8.
“I went to the location of what used to be their home yesterday,” Beshear said of the family that lost the four children. “I stood there in front of what would have been their front door and I saw one of the kid’s swings in the back. I think the oldest one would have been in second grade. They didn’t even get the same time on this Earth as my kids have already enjoyed.”
The governor launched a relief fund for victims of the flooding and those impacted, the Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief Fund, which will first go toward paying for the funeral expenses of those killed in the disaster. Beshear told CNN that families will not be required to go through an application process to get the funeral funds.
CNN’s Kristina Sgueglia, Michelle Watson, Dianne Gallagher, Dakin Andone, Caroll Alvarado, Amy Simonson and Monica Garrett contributed to this report.