BUCKHORN, Ky. – Small, devastated mountain towns began digging out in earnest Sunday as the death toll rose and another round of storms threatened more destruction following historic flooding.
Dozens of people remained unaccounted for.
“In more tough news for the commonwealth this morning, our death toll has risen to 26 lost – and that number will increase,” Gov. Andy Beshear said on social media. “There is widespread damage with many families displaced and more rain expected throughout the next day.
Excessive runoff from showers and thunderstorms Sunday and Monday could result in the flooding of rivers, creeks and streams across much of central and eastern Kentucky, the National Weather Service warned. Rainfall rates of up to 2 inches an hour could cause flash flooding, especially in areas that see repeated rounds of thunderstorms.
Hard-hit counties including Floyd, Knott and Perry are among the areas under alert. Power, water, shelter and cell service are major issues in some of those areas, Beshear said.
The flooding wiped out areas where people didn’t have that much to begin with, Beshear told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“We’re going to be finding bodies for weeks, many of them swept hundreds of yards, maybe a quarter mile plus from where they were lost,” he said. “And at a time that we’re trying to dig out, it’s raining.”
A heat wave forecast for next week will further deepen the suffering, he said. The dozen shelters opened for flood victims across the state drew 388 occupants Sunday, FEMA said. Trailers were being brought in to provide shelter for some families.
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The hardest hit areas of eastern Kentucky received almost a foot of rain late last week. The North Fork of the Kentucky River reached 20.9 feet in Whitesburg, more than 6 feet over the previous record, and crested at a record 43.5 feet in Jackson, National Weather Service meteorologist Brandon Bonds said.
The rains of Sunday and Monday won’t be the end of it, the weather service warned. Thunderstorms are also possible on Tuesday, as well as at times from Thursday through Saturday.
Beshear asked that people donate cleaning supplies or water or donate directly to the state flood relief fund, where 100% of donations go directly to Kentuckians affected.
Searchers go door-to-door
Multiple State Police posts are getting taking calls from people who have been unable to contact family and friends they are worried about, Beshear said. But there are some areas that even first-responders can’t reach, he said.
“We’re doubling our National Guard. We’re going to work to go door to door, work to find again, as many people as we can,” Beshear said. “We’re even going to work through the rain. But the weather is complicating it.”
Rebuild must consider climate change
The state must “build back stronger” to allow for the more intense storms driven by the changing climate, Beshear said. Roads, bridges, culverts, water and waste water systems and flood walls must be designed to withstand greater intensity he said.
An infrastructure bill drawing bipartisan support is a good start, Beshear said.
“The infrastructure is so expensive,” he said. “If we truly want to be more resilient, it is going to take a major federal investment, as well as here in the state. We’re ready to do our part.”
Dig-out begins in small towns
In southeastern Kentucky, some small mountain towns that were initially difficult to reach because of roads blocked by fallen trees or high water were beginning to dig out Sunday. Buckhorn, a Perry County hamlet of about 130 people, was still without electricity on Saturday after a branch of the Middle Fork of the Kentucky River carried away cars and destroyed some homes during Wednesday and Thursday’s historic floods.
One of its critical community gathering points was also decimated: The Buckhorn School, which dates back to the early 1900s and whose more than 300 students are drawn from across the mountainous region.
Torrents of water and debris that rose from Squabble Creek, which runs alongside the school, smashed walls, broke windows and tore the parking lot asphalt into pieces just two weeks before the school year was to begin.
Like other schools in the region, the county K-12 public school serves as an important hub of resources for students whose families live on low incomes, said special education teacher Kristie Combs, 46.
“It’s more than just a school, it’s a community,” said Combs, who surveyed the damage for the first time Saturday after water receded from a road leading to her home in a town 20 miles away.
In a nearby neighborhood along the creek, where generators hummed on Saturday, Teresa Engle, 33, said her two kids, Haley, 8 and EJ, 6, would likely attend in another school or county.
For now, Engle said she was just happy to be alive. In the early hours of Thursday, she said her family was trapped by the roaring waters that reached the door but left it intact. Others were less fortunate.
“We could just see cars and houses going by,” she said. “I’ve never been so terrified.”
On Saturday, her daughter was giving away a stuffed animal and a pair of boots to a neighbor’s child whose home had been destroyed.
Buckhorn School teachers and students were handing food, water and supplies to families in need.
“Some kids had homes washed away,” said high school teacher Jalen Cooper, 27, explaining that some were staying in hotels and others packing in relatives who have generators.
“It’s going to take a long time, a lot of effort and a lot of grit,” he said. “But we know how to push through.”
The Biden administration has added individual assistance to his Major Disaster Declaration to help the people of Eastern Kentucky who “have lost everything,” and recovery will be long-term.
“I’m taking more action to help the families being displaced and lives lost,” President Joe Biden said in a statement.
FEMA said the individual assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster.