Governor Andy Beshear said the immediate goal was “to get as many people to safety as possible” following what officials described as unprecedented flooding in the area.
Hundreds of people have been rescued by air and water in recent days by National Guard members from Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia as well as agents from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife and State Police.
“It’s a very difficult thing right now, with the extent of the destruction (and) the areas affected, to get an accurate figure on who is missing,” Beshear said, urging residents to report missing people. .
Mobile phone service is still down in some counties and water supply systems are overwhelmed, according to the governor. One hospital had no water.
“To everyone in Eastern Kentucky, we’re going to be here for you today and in the weeks, months and years to come. We’re going to get through this together,” Beshear said in a tweet on Saturday.
Hazard, Ky., in Perry County, is one of the hardest-hit areas in the region, and rescues there remained ongoing Saturday, Mayor Donald “Happy” Mobelini said.
“We have a team of coroners here working in the tri-county area with cadaver dogs just trying to find people and identify people,” Mobelini told CNN’s Pamela Brown on Saturday.
Mobelini said his discussions with officials in Perry, Breathitt and Knott counties lead him to believe the final figure will be much higher than the current official death toll of 25.
“It’s over 30 in total for just our three counties, and I think that’s just the tip of the iceberg, really,” Mobelini said.
Hazards the water treatment plant is completely offline, with over 20,000 residents relying entirely on bottled water shipments. And even after the floodwaters recede, many won’t be able to rebuild, the mayor said.
Couple staying in car agree to help with cleaning
Clay Nickles and his wife, McKenzie, spoke to CNN on Saturday from their car after their home in the Letcher County town of Neon was damaged two days ago.
“So far our whole family has been considered, but we have neighbors who have not been,” said Clay Nickles.
Nickles described Neon as a tight-knit community, “like Mayberry with Andy Griffith”.
“Everyone, whether they’re family or not, is like family,” he said. “In an event like this, usually if one or two people are devastated, everyone joins in to help. In this situation, everyone is devastated.”
Nickles said they would leave their car later to help with cleanup efforts.
“It’s tough, but we’ll get through it,” Nickles said. “These people were fighters and the mountain people had a lot of heart.”
Deaths have been reported in Knott, Perry, Letcher and Clay counties. Fourteen people, including four children, were confirmed dead Friday afternoon in Knott County, according to the county coroner. It was not immediately clear how the numbers factored into the state’s total death toll.
The four children were siblings, according to their aunt Brandi Smith, who said the family’s mobile home was submerged by floodwaters and forced the family to scramble to the roof to safety. She added that her sister, Amber, and her partner tried to save their children but couldn’t.
“They were hanging on to it. The water got so strong it swept them away,” Smith told CNN.
Eastern Kentucky was expected to be relieved of heavy rains on Saturday. Rain is possible Sunday through Monday, when there is a slight chance of excessive rain over the region, according to the Weather Prediction Center. Affected areas may include eastern Tennessee and along the Appalachians of North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.
An entire church disappeared
The town of Hazard in southeastern Kentucky had seven of its nine bridges impassable, an “unheard of” number, Mayor Donald “Happy” Mobelini said Friday morning.
Among the destroyed buildings is a two-story church, Pastor Peter Youmans told CNN on Friday.
“All you see are pieces of cement,” Youmans said of his Davidson Baptist Church, and saw floodwaters also smash a nearby home.
“It started raining so hard it was clearly coming into the parking lot,” he told CNN’s Jim Sciutto. “And then he came up to our house. That’s when I knew it was really bad because he’d never been in our house before. It was about a foot .”
A small creek in front of Youmans’ house is about 8 or 10 feet wide and normally less than 6 inches deep, but during the flood trailers were coming down the creek, he said.
Parishioners would usually help the church at a time like this, but they are “dealing with their own issues right now,” he noted.
“And some of them are in as bad or worse condition than ours,” he said. “We’re just grateful the house wasn’t destroyed with my grandchildren in it.”
“I’m still a little traumatized”
Meanwhile, Joseph Palumbo in Perry County struggles to reach his home after another house washes up on a road along the way, blocking access.
“We’re walking to the end of our driveway, and there’s an entire double-wide trailer that’s crashed onto our deck,” Palumbo told CNN on Friday. The trailer had been crossing Highway 28 from its own home for decades, he said.
“I’m still a bit traumatized because never in my life have I seen anything like this,” Palumbo said.
And because the trailer landed on a small bridge over a stream, he and his girlfriend, Danielle Langdon, have no way of getting around it.
“We’re climbing up a ladder, climbing over a tin roof, mud everywhere,” Palumbo said. “On the first day, we slide over the tin roof to get to the other side.”
The resident of the destroyed house was not inside at the time of the flood and came through the storm unscathed.
“I have friends that I haven’t seen in years contact me,” Palumbo said. “It’s really encouraging to see how people help each other.”
Jalen Beckford, Raja Razek, Amy Simonson, Sharif Paget, Derek Van Dam, Joe Johns, Caroll Alvarado, Amanda Musa, Claudia Dominguez, Elizabeth Wolfe, Theresa Waldrop and CNN’s Lauren Lee contributed to this report.