The number of dead found in Kentucky following devastating flooding this week has risen to 25 and is likely to continue increasing, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said in a tweet early Saturday.
The announcement comes a day after Beshear and other officials grimly predicted the count would rise from earlier tallies taken shortly after torrential downpours led to historic flooding Wednesday and Thursday.
Saturday will likely be decisive, as the state continues recovery efforts in its hard-struck eastern Appalachian region. Emergency responders, who have rescued at least 300 people so far, hope to newly access flooded communities, as branches of the Kentucky River and other waterways receded from historic levels.
Beshear warned of what rescuers may find in the aftermath.
“Our death toll has risen to 25 lost, and that number is likely to increase,” Beshear said.
“We are still in the search and rescue phase.”
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 on Sunday.
Break in weather offers hope, but also chance deaths could rise
Water had yet to recede in many hard-hit areas on Friday, but 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 , Ky.
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.
Officials say the forecast on Saturday, along with receding waters in some areas, should offer a chance to conduct additional search and rescue. Often following natural disasters, the list of unaccounted for individuals decreases as families are able to contact and reunite with loved ones lost in the chaos.
But with access increasing to many severely flooded Kentucky communities, there’s also a chance the death count will rise. On Friday, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said he expects the number of victims to “probably more than double.”
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 US servicemember deployed in Africa. Ella’s 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 revealed 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, their current status unknown.
Still, April said, it could have been worse.
“If (my mom) wouldn’t have gotten a hold of somebody I don’t know what would’ve happened, because I can’t swim,” she said.
President Biden approves disaster declaration
President Joe Biden on Friday declared a major disaster in Kentucky and ordered federal aid to assist the state’s recovery efforts in areas affected by the flooding. Federal funding will be made available to state, local governments and nonprofits for emergency protective measures in 13 counties, according to a statement from the White House.
Deanna Criswell, Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, said after arriving on the ground Friday that the disaster declaration will help cover the overtime costs and recovery efforts Kentucky communities are facing right now.
“FEMA has brought in additional search and rescue teams to support the amazing efforts that are already ongoing on the ground,” Criswell said. “If there are additional resources that are needed for these life saving missions, we will continue to bring in those resources .”
Contributing: Caleb Stultz, Lucas Aulbach and Thomas Birmingham, The Courier-Journal; Jordan D. Brown, USA TODAY; Associated Press
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism