The number of dead found in Kentucky following devastating flooding has risen to 25 and is likely to continue increasing, Gov. Andy Beshear said Saturday.
The announcement comes a day after Beshear and other officials grimly predicted the count would rise from earlier tallies after torrential downpours led to historic flooding Wednesday and Thursday.
Beshear said at a Saturday press conference that four children are among the dead, revising down officials’ earlier report that six children had died.
Saturday will likely be decisive, as the state continues recovery efforts in its hard-struck 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 via helicopter.
Beshear added that officials are “still in a search and rescue” phase and hope to newly access flooded communities, as branches of the Kentucky River and other waterways recede from historic levels. But he warned of what rescuers may find in the aftermath, saying numerous times during the press conference they except the death toll to increase.
“I’m worried we’re going to be finding bodies for weeks to come,” Beshear said.
Weather reports call for no rain Saturday, adding to the urgency of rescue operations before a forecasted 1 to 2 inches of additional rain could fall in coming days.
Kentucky flooding impacts large area; thousands still without power
The severe flooding impacted a wide swath of mountainous Eastern Kentucky, spread over about a dozen counties with a combined land area roughly the same size as Connecticut.
During his Saturday press conference, Beshear said that more than 18,000 electric utility customers remain without power. Water services had also taken a massive hit, with more than 26,000 “service connections” — homes, businesses, or public buildings — without water. Another 29,000 were under a boil water advisory..
Eighteen sewage treatment plants were also under limited operation primarily due to flooded infrastructure, Beshear said, including three bypassing waste directly to waterways.
As of Saturday morning, river gauges sprinkled throughout the region were still recording 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 Kentucky floods prompt worries about recovery, future disasters
Even as rescue operations continued Saturday, Kentuckians were coming to grips with the historic nature of the destruction, and the long road to recovery ahead.
On Casey Wright’s front lawn in Whitesburg, waterlogged furniture was strewn across the front lawn. She invited a reporter to survey the damage inside her home.
“People need to see,” she said. The flood had left caked mud on her floors and walls. The mattress on which her son Drake sleeps was soaked with water.
Elsewhere in the city, staff of an Appalachian cultural center worried about a “big loss” of historical photographs, and residents wondered why government aid hadn’t yet reached them.
Speaking at the Saturday press conference, Beshear himself seemed momentarily stunned by the devastation.
“We don’t lose this many people in flooding,” Beshear said. “This is a real tough one.”
Scientists say climate change is increasing the amount of moisture in the atmosphere, and can lead to storm systems stalling out over the same area. They link those trends to an increase in extreme rainfall events, with 2021 seeing the third highest number of billion-dollar disasters on record.
Even for those who survive, such disasters cause human suffering. Insurance and government relief programs often fail to make communities whole in the aftermath of destruction, or take years to do so.
“There’s now widespread recognition that this isn’t a one-off thing, that we are on a trajectory of ever-increasing risk,” Carolyn Kousky, a disaster finance expert and executive director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Risk Center, told USA TODAY earlier this year. “We’re going to be seeing this and a lot worse in the coming years. This is not sustainable.”
Break in weather offers crucial window for rescuers
A lull in rainfall forecasted on Saturday could provide a crucial window in helping evacuate those still stuck in flooded areas.
Additional storms could bring 1 to 2 inches of rainfall and fresh flooding starting Sunday afternoon through Monday — but the storm front is expected to move through without lingering like it did in Thursday’s flooding, said Ed Ray, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Jackson, Kentucky.
Those estimates could change as it draws closer, he said, and some areas could see higher amounts.
“Because we’ve taken such a hard hit already, it isn’t going to take much to cause more problems,” Ray told USA TODAY. “Any rain you get just adds insult to injury.”
Ray said the communities affected by flooding may see a chance to “recoup” with drier weather later into next week.
But Beshear on Saturday said a forecast calling for hot temperatures by mid-week presents its own challenges since tens of thousands of households and businesses are currently without water or under a boil water advisory.
“It’s going to get really hot,” Beshear said. “It could create its own emergency.”
Families hope to find missing loved ones
In the days after the flooding, families held out hope for reconnection with missing family members. Some people remain unaccounted for in a region of Kentucky where cell service and electricity have been unreliable following the floods.
On Thursday, dozens sought shelter in a gymnasium in Breathitt County. Among them was Heather Akers, whose son is a U.S. servicemember deployed in Africa. Her son’s wife, 23-year-old Ashley Branson, and their two children were missing following the floods. Their trailer was found abandoned, but another survivor relayed that she’d heard the mother and children had been picked up by a rescue vehicle, its destination unknown.
Akers told the Louisville Courier-Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network, her son had delivered her a message.
“He told me to find his babies,” she said.
Elsewhere in hard-hit Breathitt, residents Chad and April Stiver stood atop the roof of a house they had just spent 18 months remodeling. Now, they were using a hammer to smash through its roof. A day earlier, it had been rapidly inundated with floodwaters from Troublesome Creek, located about 75 feet away.
“The water went from my ankles to my chest in 45 minutes,” Chad said. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
As the waters rose Thursday morning, the couple scrambled onto their roof with their son and five huskies. April’s mom put out a call for help on Facebook. That led to their being rescued by air lift. But the huskies had to be left behind.
Still, April said, it could have been worse.
“If (my mom) wouldn’t have gotten ahold of somebody I don’t know what would’ve happened, because I can’t swim,” she said.
Contributing: Caleb Stultz, Lucas Aulbach, Maggie Menderski and Thomas Birmingham, The Courier-Journal; Jordan D. Brown, USA TODAY; The Associated Press