The death toll found in Kentucky from devastating flooding has risen to 25 and is expected to continue to rise, Gov. Andy Beshear said Saturday.
The announcement comes a day after Beshear and other officials ominously predicted the tally would rise from earlier tallies after torrential downpours led to historic flooding on Wednesday and Thursday.
Beshear told a news conference on Saturday that four children were among the dead, revising officials’ previous report that six children had died.
Saturday is likely to be decisive, as the state continues its recovery efforts in its hard-hit eastern Appalachian region. Beshear said National Guard units and other emergency responders have performed at least 1,200 air and water rescues so far, including the rescue of more than 600 people by helicopter.
Beshear added that officials are “still in a search and rescue phase” and hope to gain access to flooded communities, as branches of the Kentucky River and other waterways recede from historic levels. But he warned of what rescuers might find next, repeatedly saying at the press conference that they expected the death toll to rise.
“I fear we will find bodies in the coming weeks,” Beshear said.
Weather reports predict no rain on Saturday, adding to the urgency of rescue operations before another 1 to 2 inches of rain can fall in the coming days.
Already flooded areas brace for more threatening weather
After a day of respite from rain on Saturday, communities in central and eastern Kentucky are preparing for more potential flooding this weekend.
Jackson’s National Weather Service released new flood alerts Saturday for many areas already under water. Excessive runoff from downpours and thunderstorms between Sunday and Monday could flood rivers, streams and streams across much of central and eastern Kentucky, according to the Weather Service.
Additional storms could bring 1 to 2 inches of precipitation — but the storm front is expected to move without lingering like it did during Thursday’s flooding, said Ed Ray, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Jackson, Ky. .
“Because we’ve already taken such a beating, it won’t take much to cause more problems,” Ray told USA TODAY. “Any rain you get only adds insult to injury.”
Ray said flood-affected communities could see a chance to “recover” with drier weather later next week.
But Beshear said on Saturday that a forecast calling for warm temperatures by the middle of the week presents its own challenges as tens of thousands of households and businesses are currently without water or subject to boil water advisories. the water.
“It’s gonna get really hot,” Beshear said. “It could create its own urgency.”
Kentucky Floods Affect Wide Area; thousands still without electricity
The severe flooding affected a broad mountainous swath of eastern Kentucky, spread across a dozen counties with a combined area about the same size as Connecticut.
At its Saturday press conference, Beshear said more than 18,000 electric utility customers remained without power. Water services have also been hit hard, with more than 26,000 “service connections” – homes, businesses or public buildings – without water. Another 29,000 people were on boil water advisories..
Eighteen sewage treatment plants were also in limited operation mainly due to flooded infrastructure, Beshear said, including three bypassing waste directly to waterways.
As of Saturday morning, river gauges scattered throughout the region were still registering dangerously high currents. At Martin’s Fork, about 10 miles from the state’s southern border with Virginia, water flow was still five times above average levels for this time of year.
Unprecedented flooding in Kentucky raises concerns about recovery and future disasters
Even as rescue operations continued Saturday, Kentuckians were overcome with the historic nature of the destruction and the long road to recovery.
On Casey Wright’s lawn in Whitesburg, waterlogged furniture was strewn across the lawn. She invited a journalist to see the damage inside his house.
“People need to see,” she says. The flood had left hardened mud on its floors and walls. The mattress on which his son Drake sleeps was soaked with water.
Elsewhere in town, staff at an Appalachian cultural center were concerned about a “big loss” of historic photographs, and residents wondered why government help hadn’t reached them yet.
Speaking at Saturday’s press conference, Beshear himself seemed momentarily stunned by the devastation.
“We don’t lose that many people in the floods,” Beshear said. “It’s really difficult.”
Scientists say climate change is increasing the amount of moisture in the atmosphere and can cause storm systems to lock in the same area. They link these trends to a increase in extreme rainfall events2021 posting the third highest number of billion dollar disasters checked in.
Even for those who survive, these disasters cause human suffering. Insurance and government assistance programs fail to make communities whole following the destruction, or take years to do so.
“It is now widely recognized that this is not a one-time thing, that we are on an ever-increasing risk trajectory,” said Carolyn Kousky, disaster finance expert and executive director of the Wharton Risk Center in the United States. from the University of Pennsylvania. TODAY earlier this year. “We are going to see this and much worse in the years to come. It’s not sustainable. »
Families hope to find missing loved ones
In the days following the floods, families held out hope of reconnecting with missing family members. Some people are still missing in an area of Kentucky where cell service and electricity are unreliable following flooding.
Thursday, dozens sought refuge at a Breathitt County gymnasium. Among them was Heather Akers, whose son is an American serviceman deployed in Africa. His son’s wife, Ashley Branson, 23, and their two children disappeared following the floods. Their trailer was found abandoned, but another survivor said she heard the mother and children had been picked up by an emergency vehicle, the destination of which was unknown.
Akers told the Louisville Courier-Journal, which is part of the USA TODAY Network, that his son had delivered a message to him.
“He told me to find his babies,” she said.
Elsewhere in hard-hit Breathitt, residents Chad and April Stiver stood on the roof of a house they had just spent 18 months remodeling. Now they were using a hammer to smash his roof. A day earlier, it had been quickly inundated by floodwaters from Troublesome Creek, located about 75 feet.
“The water went from my ankles to my chest in 45 minutes,” Chad said. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
As the waters rose Thursday morning, the couple climbed onto their roof with their son and five huskies. April’s mom has appealed for help on Facebook. This led to their rescue by airlift. But the huskies had to be left behind.
Still, April said, it could have been worse.
“If (my mother) hadn’t gotten hold of someone, I don’t know what would have happened, because I can’t swim,” she said.
Contributors: Caleb Stultz, Lucas Aulbach, Maggie Menderski and Thomas Birmingham, The Courier-Journal; Jordan D. Brown, USA TODAY; The Associated Press