“We continue to pray for the families that have suffered an unfathomable loss,” Gov. Andy Beshear said. “Some having lost almost everyone in their household.”
Beshear said that the number would likely rise significantly and it could take weeks to find all the victims of the record flash flooding. Rescue crews continue the struggle to get into hard-hit areas, some of them among the poorest places in America.
“I’m worried that we’re going to be finding bodies for weeks to come,” Beshear said during a midday briefing.
He said it continues to be an active search-and-rescue operation with a goal of getting as many people to safety as possible. Crews have made more than 1,200 rescues from helicopters and boats, the governor said.
Beshear, who flew over parts of the flood-stricken region on Friday, described it as “just total devastation, the likes of which we have never seen.”
“We are committed to a full rebuilding effort to get these folks back on their feet,” Beshear said. “But for now, we’re just praying that we don’t lose anybody else.”
The rain let up early Friday after parts of eastern Kentucky received between 8 and 10 1/2 inches (20-27 centimeters) over 48 hours. But some waterways were not expected to crest until Saturday.
In the tiny community of Garrett on Saturday, couches, tables, and pillows soaked by flooding were stacked in yards along the foothills of the mountainous region as people worked to clear out debris and shovel mud from driveways and roads.
In nearby Wayland, Phillip Michael Caudill was working to clean up debris and salvage what he can from the home he shares with his wife and three children. The waters had receded from the house but left a mess behind along with questions about what he and his family will do next.
“We’re just hoping we can get some help,” said Caudill, who is staying with his family at Jenny Wiley State Park in a free room, for now.
Caudill, a firefighter in the Garrett community, went out on rescues around 1 a.m. Thursday but had to ask to leave around 3 a.m. so he could go home, where waters were rapidly rising.
“That’s what made it so tough for me,” he said. “Here I am, sitting there, watching my house become immersed in water and you got people begging for help. And I couldn’t help,” because he was tending to his own family.
The water was up to his knees when he arrived home and he had to wade across the yard and carry two of his children out to the car. He could barely shut the door of his SUV as they were leaving.
Patricia Colombo, 63, of Hazard, Kentucky, became stranded when her car stalled in floodwaters on a state highway. Colombo began to panic when water started rushing in. Though her phone was dead, she saw a helicopter overhead and waved it down. The helicopter crew radioed a ground team that plucked her to safety.
Colombo stayed the night at her fiance’s home in Jackson and they took turns sleeping, repeatedly checking the water with flashlights to see if it was rising. Though her car was a loss, Colombo said others had it worse in a region where poverty is endemic.
“Many of these people cannot recover out here. They have homes that are half underwater, they’ve lost everything,” she said.
It’s the latest in a string of catastrophic deluges that have pounded parts of the United States this summer, including St. Louis earlier this week and again on Friday. Scientists warn climate change is making weather disasters more common.
As rainfall hammered Appalachia this week, water tumbled down hillsides and into valleys and hollows where it swelled creeks and streams coursing through small towns. The torrent engulfed homes and businesses and trashed vehicles. Mudslides marooned some people on steep slopes.
President Joe Biden declared a federal disaster to direct relief money to more than a dozen Kentucky counties.
The floodwaters raging through Appalachia were so swift that some people trapped in their homes couldn’t be immediately reached, said Floyd County Judge-Executive Robbie Williams.
Just to the west in hard-hit Perry County, authorities said some people remained unaccounted for and almost everyone in the area suffered some sort of damage.
“We’ve still got a lot of searching to do,” said Jerry Stacy, the county’s emergency management director.