Another round of rainstorms hit flooded Kentucky mountain communities Monday as more bodies emerged from the sodden landscape, and the governor warned that high winds could bring another threat — falling trees and utility poles.
Gov. Andy Beshear said the death toll rose to 35, and hundreds of people remained unaccounted for five days after one of the nation’s poorest regions was swamped by nearly a foot of rain. The water poured down hillsides and into valleys and hollows, engulfing entire towns. Mudslides marooned some people on steep slopes.
Radar indicated that up to 4 more inches (10.2 centimetres) of rain fell Sunday, and the National Weather Service warned that slow-moving showers and thunderstorms could provoke more flash flooding through Tuesday morning.
“If things weren’t hard enough on the people of this region, they’re getting rain right now,” Mr. Beshear said Monday at the Capitol in Frankfort.
“Just as concerning is high winds — think about how saturated the ground has been — it could knock over poles, it could knock over trees. So people need to be careful."
An approaching heat wave means “it’s even going to get tougher when the rain stops,” the governor said. "We need to make sure people are ultimately stable by that point.”
Chris Campbell, president of Letcher Funeral Home in Whitesburg, said he’s begun handling burial arrangements for people who died.
“These people, we know most of them. We’re a small community,” he said of the town about 110 miles southeast of Lexington. “It affects everybody.”
His funeral home recently buried a 67-year-old woman who had a heart attack while trying to escape her home as the water rose. Mr. Campbell knew her boyfriend well, he said.
On Monday, he was meeting with the family of a husband and wife in their 70s, people he also knew personally. He said it’s hard to explain the magnitude of the loss.
“I don’t know how to explain it or what to say, to be completely honest,” he said. “I just can’t imagine what they’re going through. I don’t think there really are our words for it.”
Mr. Campbell said his 90-year-old grandmother lost her entire home. She managed to escape to a neighbour’s house with some photos. Everything else in the home where she’s lived since 1958 is gone, he said.
More than 12,000 utility customers remained without power. At least 300 people were staying in shelters.
The floods were unleashed last week when 8 to 10 1/2 inches (20 to 27 centimetres) of rain fell in just 48 hours in parts of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia and western Virginia.
The disaster was the latest in a string of catastrophic deluges that have pounded parts of the U.S. this summer, including St. Louis. Scientists warn that climate change is making such events more common.
The floodwaters also swept away some of the region’s irreplaceable history. Appalshop, a cultural centre known for chronicling Appalachian life, was assessing extensive damage at its repository, where historic documents and artefacts were flushed out of the building.
While touring the disaster area Sunday, Mr. Beshear said he saw how people have been helping their neighbours.
"These are amazing folks. They’re hurting, but they’re strong. And it’s amazing to see them helping each other, even when they’ve got nothing left,” he said.
About 400 people have been rescued by helicopter, according to Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the U.S. National Guard Bureau.
“In light of the devastation, the response is going pretty well," he said Sunday.
The governor cancelled a trip to Israel that was scheduled for later this week, saying he could not travel overseas "while the people of eastern Kentucky are suffering."
Meanwhile, nighttime curfews were declared in response to reports of looting in two of the devastated communities — Breathitt County and the nearby city of Hindman in Knott County.
Breathitt County declared a countywide curfew from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., County Attorney Brendon Miller said Sunday evening in a Facebook post. The only exceptions were for emergency vehicles, first responders, and people traveling for work.
“I hate to have to impose a curfew, but looting will absolutely not be tolerated. Our friends and neighbours have lost so much. We cannot stand by and allow them to lose what they have left,” the post said.
Breathitt County Sheriff John Hollan said the curfew decision came after 18 reports of looting. He said people were stealing from private property where homes were damaged. No arrest have been made.
Hindman Mayor Tracy Neice also announced a sunset-to-sunrise curfew because of looting, television station WYMT reported. Both curfews will remain in place until further notice, officials said.
Last week’s flooding extended to parts of West Virginia and Virginia. President Joe Biden declared a federal disaster to direct relief money to flooded counties, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency was helping.
Another relief effort came from the University of Kentucky’s men basketball team, which planned an open practice Tuesday at Rupp Arena and a charity telethon.
Coach John Calipari said players approached him about the idea.
“The team and I are looking forward to doing what we can," Mr. Calipari said.