Gov. Andy Beshear lamented that the number of deaths “is likely to increase” following what officials have described as unprecedented flooding in the region.
“To everyone in Eastern Kentucky, we are going to be there for you today and in the weeks, months and years ahead. We will get through this together,” Beshear said in a tweet Saturday.
The death toll is expected to rise in the coming days as rescuers search new areas that are currently impassable.
“This is a type of flood that even an area that sees flooding has never been seen in our lifetime,” Beshear told CNN after returning from an aerial tour of flooding in Breathitt County on Friday. “Hundreds of homes wiped away with nothing left.”
There is no accurate account of how many people remain missing in the aftermath as cell service is out in many areas. “It’s going to be very challenging to get a good number,” the governor said.
Clay Nickels and his wife, McKenzie, spoke to CNN Saturday from their car after their home in the city of Neon, in Letcher County, was damaged two days ago.
“All of our family so far has been accounted for but we have neighbors who have not,” Clay Nickles said.
Nickles described Neon as a tight-knit community, “like Mayberry with Andy Griffith.”
“Everybody, whether they’re family or not, is like family,” he said. “In an event like this typically, if one or two people get devastated, everybody joins in to help. In this situation, everyone is devastated.”
Nickles said they will leave their car later to help with cleanup efforts.
“This is tough but we will get through this,” Nickles said. “These people were fighters and mountain people have had a lot of heart.”
Deaths have been reported in Knott, Perry, Letcher and Clay counties. Fourteen people, including four children, were confirmed dead Friday afternoon in Knott County, according to the county coroner. It was not immediately clear how that number factors into the state’s overall death toll.
The four children were siblings, according to their aunt Brandi Smith, who said the family’s mobile home became overwhelmed with floodwaters and forced the family to rush to the roof for safety. She added that her sister, Amber, and her partner, tried to save their children but were unable.
“They were holding on to them. The water got so strong, it just washed them away,” Smith told CNN.
Eastern Kentucky is expected to get some relief from heavy rain Saturday. Rain is possible Sunday into Monday, when there is a slight risk of excessive rain over the region, according to the Weather Prediction Center. Affected areas may include eastern Tennessee and along the Appalachians of North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.
An entire church gone
The city of Hazard in southeastern Kentucky had seven of its nine bridges impassable, an “unheard of” number, Mayor Donald “Happy” Mobelini said Friday morning.
Among the buildings wiped out include a two-story church, Pastor Peter Youmans told CNN Friday.
“All that you see is scraps of cement,” Youmans said of his Davidson Baptist Church, and witnessed floodwaters also wiping out a house nearby.
“It started raining so hard that it was clearly coming up into the parking lot,” he told CNN’s Jim Sciutto. “And then it got up into our house. That’s when I knew it was really bad because it’s never been in our house before. It was about a foot.”
A small creek in front of Youmans’ house is about 8 or 10 feet wide and normally less than 6 inches deep, but during the flooding, trailers were moving down the creek, he said.
Parishioners would typically be helping the church at a time like this, yet they are “taking care of their own problems right now,” he noted.
“And some of them are in as bad or worse shape than we are in,” he said. “We’re just thankful that the house was not destroyed with my grandchildren in it.”
‘I’m still sort of traumatized’
Meanwhile, Joseph Palumbo in Perry County is struggling to reach his home after another house washed up onto a road on the way, blocking access.
“We walk to the end of our driveway, and there is an entire double-wide trailer smashed into our bridge,” Palumbo told CNN Friday. The trailer had been across Highway 28 from his own house for decades, he said.
“I’m still sort of traumatized because never in my life have I seen something like this,” Palumbo said.
And because the trailer landed on a small bridge over a creek, he and his girlfriend, Danielle Langdon, have no way of walking around it.
“We’re climbing up a ladder, scaling across a tin roof, mud everywhere,” Palumbo said. “The first day, we’re sliding across the tin roof to get to the other side.”
The resident of the destroyed home was not inside at the time of flooding and made it through the storm unharmed.
“I have friends that I haven’t seen in years reaching out to me,” Palumbo said. “It’s really heartening to see the way people help each other.”
At least 75% of Perry County had significant damages to homes and bridges, county judge Scott Alexander told CNN on Thursday.
“It’s a historic storm that we have encountered, I don’t think we’ve ever seen this much rain in a 24-hour period and it’s devastated the community,” Alexander said. “People lost homes, cars, it’s just an unusual event.”
CNN’s Raja Razek, Amy Simonson, Derek Van Dam, Joe Johns, Caroll Alvarado, Amanda Musa, Claudia Dominguez, Elizabeth Wolfe, Theresa Waldrop and Lauren Lee contributed to this report.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism