The response to some of the worst flooding in Kentucky’s history entered a crucial phase Saturday, as the search for victims accelerated across a battered stretch of central Appalachia.
The confirmed death toll stood at 25, according to Governor Andy Beshear. But he added a grim prediction at a press conference on Saturday: “I fear we will find bodies in the coming weeks,” he said.
A cold front introduced clearer weather in flooded areas on Saturday, giving rescuers one less obstacle to contend with as they worked to pull more residents from rooftops. More than 600 people were airlifted by National Guard troops from Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia, Beshear said. He said Kentucky State Police and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife assisted in the rescue of more than 700 people by boat.
But rescue efforts continue to be hampered by rugged hills and valleys that remain difficult to reach. And with rain forecast for Sunday and Monday, officials felt the urgency to make more progress before water levels had a chance to rise.
On Saturday, the governor announced that 14 counties and at least three cities had declared states of emergency.
Many other challenges remained. The first was that some communities in Kentucky were either without power or cut off from cell phone service. Mr Beshear said on Saturday that 18,000 homes were without power. The blackouts have made it difficult for heads of state to accurately estimate the number of missing people.
The flooding also disrupted the area’s water supply systems, which is concerning as Kentucky residents were facing the possibility of another heat wave next week. More than 25,000 homes and businesses were without water Saturday, the governor said, adding that nearly 30,000 others had service but were told to boil their water.
The weather patterns that caused the flooding were part of the same system that caused record rains and massive flash flooding in St. Louis earlier in the week. Although the link between climate change and a single flood requires careful scientific analysis, human-caused global warming is already producing heavier rainfall during many storms.
Rains in Kentucky began hitting the state late Wednesday, washing away roads and leaving hundreds of homes under water. In the town of Whitesburg, water engulfed the buildings of Appalshop, a revered nonprofit arts and education organization that has promoted Appalachian culture for more than half a century.
On Thursday, rescue personnel from state agencies and the National Guard were conducting a frantic search for survivors by boat and helicopter. And by Friday evening, the confirmed death toll had risen to 25, with many more still missing. Among the dead so far are four children from the same family who clung to a tree and each other amid floodwaters after escaping from a mobile home. (Officials initially reported six children among the dead, but on Saturday the governor said two of those six victims were actually adults.)
The parents of these four children, aged 2 to 8, were rescued hours later by a man in a kayak who was looking for stranded neighbors. Brittany Trejo, a relative of the family, told The New York Times, “Water rage took their children out of their hands.”
A bright spot amid the grief and devastation in Kentucky has been the efforts of volunteers across the state to help rescuers find, feed and assist those who remain trapped by flooding or who have taken refuge in churches. and other makeshift shelters.
Joe Arvin, a private chef who has competed in nationally televised cooking contests, worked into the wee hours of Saturday morning to smoke hundreds of pounds of pork and beef at his home in Lexington, Ky. The meat would fill the roughly 1,000 burritos he planned to deliver to the hard-hit town of Hazard before noon.
Mr Arvin, 51, said he had been warned flood waters were still high in the area and some of the bridges between Lexington and Hazard were out of service. But he planned, after getting some sleep, to do the two-and-a-half-hour drive anyway.
“It’s okay,” he said on the phone just before going to bed. “We are getting there. One way or another, we will be there to help our brothers.