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Fearing looters, Kentucky flood victims refuse to leave wrecked homes

“A lot of people are going primitive,” a survivor said. “They’re just sitting on their porch, hoping somebody’s coming to save them.”
Dilbert White, 67, sits on the end of his cot where he’s been sleeping since his house was wrecked during the flooding in Caney, Ky. on Aug 3, 2022.
Dilbert White, 67, sits on the end of his cot where he’s been sleeping since his house was wrecked during the flooding in Caney, Ky. on Aug 3, 2022. Michael Swensen for NBC News

KNOTT COUNTY, Ky. — First came the floods, then came the vultures.

Kentucky residents badly in need of food and fresh water after the eastern half of the state was inundated last week by epic floods were refusing Wednesday to leave their wrecked homes for fear of losing what little they have left to looters.

“It’s also sad because people have been coming from out of the area to be like vultures and loot,” said Zack Hall, a flood survivor who is also the tourism director for Knott County.

“People who do have a path out now feel like they have to suffer and sit in their house with no power to make sure no one gets into it,” Hall said. “My uncle, who is diabetic, is watching our entire family’s property to make sure nobody gets into them.”

And the looters are brazen, Hall said.

“People drive up to people’s yards, put things in their cars and drive away,” Hall said. “We are one of the lowest income areas in the country. People don’t have much, and what got washed away they lost and what they have left is taken.”

Many survivors are sitting tight instead of seeking help at the shelters local officials set up in the wake of the devastating storms last week that left at least 37 dead and hundreds more still unaccounted for, spread out over five counties.

Seventeen of those fatalities were reported in Knott County, and four of the dead are children from the same family, officials have said.

“A lot of people are going primitive,” Hall said. “They’re just sitting on their porch, hoping somebody’s coming to save them."

At least two counties have imposed curfews to prevent looting. In Breathitt County, members of the Kentucky National Guard are now patrolling the battered region, the county sheriff said Tuesday on Facebook.

“I have zero patience for crime,” Tracy Neice, mayor of the hard-hit city of Hindman, posted on the official Facebook page Sunday. “This is not a step that we wanted to take, but excessive looting has forced us to take any step that could prevent crime and protect your property.”

“If you are taking advantage of people in their time of need, you are sick. You will not hurt my people,” Neice added. “You just won’t.”

Image: Delbert White wipes sweat from his face in front of his home in Caney, Ky., on Aug. 3, 2022.
Delbert White wipes sweat from his face in front of his home in Caney, Ky., on Aug. 3, 2022. Michael Swensen for NBC News

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said they’re also cracking down on out-of-state scammers.

“To loot, to steal and to take from people who’ve lost everything is the worst of humanity, and it’s hard to believe that someone would be or go so low as to do that,” he said Tuesday.

Rita Brewer said someone stole the gas out her husband’s Jeep, her van, and their 4-wheeler at their property in Breathitt County, which was damaged in the flood.

“That’s really horrible. It’s hard enough to get gas. It cost us $74 to go back out and fill up again,” she said. “That’s money we could have had for food. And you gotta have gas to run generators.”

“They shouldn’t be out stealing. It’s hard times as it is,” she said.

Breathitt County Attorney Brendon Miller said he wasn’t aware of any arrests so far but said the “commonwealth will seek maximum bond, bail and maximum jail sentence for anyone who is caught.”

“This is the lowest thing anybody could do to someone else at this point in time,” Miller said. “Homes are completely missing ... so what these people are doing or attempting to do is the lowest form of citizenship I believe that you can actually undertake.”

Kentucky State Police Trooper Matt Gayheart said they've made at least one arrest for looting although they've been "fielding reports of that activity for four, five days."

"It’s a crime of opportunity," he said. "They’ll drive around and look at what’s laying around. There isn’t a whole lot left. Chainsaws, any kind of tools, anything they can get their hands on. Catalytic converters. Things they can turn into a quick profit.”

The majority of the looters appear to be locals, Gayheart said, but there have been reports of pillagers coming from Tennessee and Virginia. And they appear to be targeting easier-to-reach homes rather than remote properties.

Knott County has about 16,000 residents, many of them elderly and suffering from chronic illnesses like diabetes, Hall said. And even if they wanted to leave they can’t because 70 bridges in the county were destroyed by floodwaters and most of the roads are either wrecked or covered with mud and debris.

Image: A car remains crushed under a house that floated down River Caney Creek in Breathitt County, Ky. on Aug. 3, 2022.
A car remains crushed under a house that floated down River Caney Creek in Breathitt County, Ky. on Aug. 3, 2022. Michael Swensen for NBC News
Image: A Perry County school bus is flipped over in River Caney Creek in Breathitt County, Ky. on Aug. 3, 2022.
A Perry County school bus is flipped over in River Caney Creek in Breathitt County, Ky. on Aug. 3, 2022.Michael Swensen for NBC News

“At least half can’t walk out of their doors to get the things they need,” he said. “They’re stuck in these hollers and they can’t get out.”

Kevin Kelly, a spokesperson for Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, said rescuers with the agency have delivered more than 1,760 hot trays of food, 500 sandwiches, 39 cases of water, several cases of laundry detergent, cleaning supplies and diapers, as well as several air conditioners and generators to residents in hard-to-reach areas without power. 

In some cases, rescue workers were saddling up and delivering food and water on horseback.

For many flood survivors, the cavalry can’t come soon enough.

“They’re wishing they could get out,” Joanne Miller said of her 67-year-old father, Chester Marshall, who is hunkered down in his Perry County home with her teenage son and her 5-year-old granddaughter because flooding wiped out the local road. “They can’t get their car out of the driveway.”

Miller, who is 45 and lives in nearby Breathitt County, said she’s been using Facebook messenger to stay in touch with her 18-year-old son Jacob Marshall because they don’t have a landline or cellphones.

“I talked to him this morning,” Miller said. “I told him that there was a woman that was gonna come over there hopefully today and he said, ‘Mom, we could use anything that we can get right now’.”

Compounding the misery, the worst-hit areas in eastern Kentucky like Perry County were expected to be blanketed by high heat and humidity that will make it feel close to 100 degrees for the next two days.

“It will certainly slow down operations,” said Dustin Jordan of the National Weather Service. “Anytime you’re having to deal with more heat, you’ve got to move slower, you’ve got to go at a little bit slower pace.”

Beshear echoed that as he announced the opening of eight cooling centers where workers will be "bringing in water by the truckloads."

“It’s going to get really, really hot,” Beshear warned. “And that is now our new weather challenge.”

Image: James Henry White carries ice to his father in Caney, Ky. on Aug. 3, 2022.
James Henry White carries ice to his father in Caney, Ky. on Aug. 3, 2022.Michael Swensen for NBC News

It already is stifling in Knott County, Hall said.

“The heat just makes everybody miserable,” he said. “It’s so humid. It’s hard to breathe. It’s like a jungle now. You’re wet from just being outside.”

Also, almost a quarter of the Knott County residents were still without power almost a week after the storms roared through the state and a lot of them live in trailers or mobile homes without air conditioning.

“They’re like tin cans,” Hall said. “They heat up like an oven.”

Minyvonne Burke reported from Kentucky, and Melissa Chan and Corky Siemaszko from New York.