At least 25 dead in Kentucky in devastating flood, governor says

Photo for The Washington Post by Arden S. Barnes
A car and a vintage Hindman Fire Department firetruck were washed up by floodwaters.

HINDMAN, Ky. – The death toll in Eastern Kentucky has risen to 25 people, including several children, as search-and-rescue teams continue scouring communities in the Appalachian foothills for survivors of devastating floods.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) said on Saturday that rescue crews were scrambling to take advantage of the drier weather and ebbing floodwaters to locate the missing and whisk survivors to shelters ahead of more rainstorms later Sunday. But he warned of hazardous conditions, downed power lines, and cellphone blackouts in many areas, and said the number of deaths will almost certainly rise.

Some have lost almost everyone in their households, the governor said during a news conference.

“I’m worried that we’re going to be finding bodies for weeks to come,” he added. “Keep praying. I hope there are no more, we ought to expect there will be more loss.”

The brown, muddy floodwaters destroyed homes and shocked residents – many of whom escaped in boats or clinging to roofs or tree branches – as the state marked the disaster’s third day. National Guard from Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia, state police, and fish and wildlife officers searched for victims by land, air and boat. Beshear said officers had participated in hundreds of rescues.

Beshear said four children were among the dead, not six as earlier reported. But he said many areas are remote and swaths of areas lack water, electricity, gas, internet or cellphone service, making it difficult for residents to call for help. His office has set up hotlines and email to report the missing.

In the rural city of Hindman, home to 600 people on Troublesome Creek in the eastern coalfields of Kentucky, the fast-rising floodwaters caught many residents off guard. The city has been struggling for years as the coal industry shrank and jobs evaporated, and the area’s terrain remains rugged and isolated, according to a 2018 federal report. Nearly half the residents are living in poverty, census figures show.

Around 2 a.m. on Thursday morning, Tommy Slone awoke to a loud crash and his wife telling him that their home on a hill outside Hindman was flooding. Half asleep, Slone said, “We’re on a hill, everything drains off.”

“No,” Slone said his wife quickly shot back. “It’s raining like it never has before.”

When he was finally able to survey the damage, Slone said a mudslide had pushed an outbuilding into a tree and his carport.

“Then it all came on top of my house,” Slone said.

His already-steep driveway had eroded so much that he hadn’t been able to get off his property until Saturday morning after he and his neighbors lower on the hill piled up logs and other debris to make their driveway passable.

Slone, who was waiting Saturday in a line at Hindman First Baptist to receive food, bottled water and other donated provisions, repeated a line echoing around Hindman.

“It’s not about us, it’s about everybody,” said Slone, explaining that were others who fared far worse.

Friends and family had found bodies in their yard. Otis Noble, one of Slone’s neighbors, said his children had classmates who died.

“They’re tore all to pieces by it,” Noble said. “They’re just in kindergarten.”

President Joe Biden, Beshear and several counties have issued disaster declarations for communities battered by heavy rainfall and rising waters.

Statewide, 530 people were in shelters, including 142 people in state parks that were opening to people forced from their homes, Beshear said. More trailers were coming in from western Kentucky areas that were destroyed by tornadoes last year. The flooding has stretched into West Virginia and western parts of Virginia.

Beshear said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was sending in 18 tractor trailers of water as many residents lost service and temperatures were expected to rise next week.

Washington Post by Arden S. Barnes
Crew members for New River Electrical Corp. work to restore power lines near Hindman, Ky.

In Hindman, Noble said he and Slone had no water.

“You can only do so much with the water that they give you as far as hygiene goes,” Slone said. “It’s not the same.”

Noble and Slone said they were determined to find more supplies for themselves and their neighbors.

“It’s a fight to get the gas station,” Noble said.

Slone said working with his neighbors helps him stay sane in the face of disaster.

“What helps you go, is that you know that you’re not the only one going through it.”

The area expects a break in rainfall for about another day and half, but the National Weather Service is predicting more rain and storms for Sunday through Tuesday.

Beshear said officials were working frantically to get as much done as floodwaters ebbed and some roads reopened Saturday. But he warned residents that they should prepare for more rain Sunday afternoon, even though the storms were not expected to be as severe.

And he urged people to watch out for downed power lines and still-high water in some areas.

“Make sure you are in a safe place,” he said. “I don’t want to lose one more person.

“It’s not fair that it’s going to rain again. But it is,” he said.

More than 5,600 people had donated to a relief fund, he said, raising more than $684,688. He said the money would go to victims, starting with funerals.