Gov. Andy Beshear pledged the state of Kentucky's support in securing housing for residents affected by the flooding and paying for the funerals of the more than two dozen victims ahead of more heavy rain expected this week.
“The next couple days are going to continue to be tough, but I promise you life will get better," Beshear said in a news conference on Sunday. "We will get everyone stabilized and in some form of housing, and we will remove the debris and we will move forward.”
At least 28 people have died following severe storms that led to mudslides, landslides and record flash flooding, Beshear said. Four children — siblings ranging in age from two to eight years old — are among the dead.
As many as 37 people were unaccounted for, according to a daily briefing from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
On top of that, more flash flooding was possible in portions of Appalachia on Sunday and Monday as the latest storms roll through, the National Weather Service said. Rainfall rates of 1 to 2 inches per hour were possible in some of the same areas that were inundated last week.
A dozen shelters were open for flood victims in Kentucky with 388 occupants on Sunday, according to FEMA.
'Bodies for weeks'
On an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday morning, Beshear said he knows "of several additional bodies" and that the death count will continue to rise, with the affected areas having received between 8 and 10 1/2 inches of rain.
"With the level of water, we’re going to be finding bodies for weeks, many of them swept hundreds of yards, maybe a quarter mile plus from where they were lost," Beshear said.
In a YouTube video posted on Sunday, the governor said that his staffers were aware of "additional bodies that have been recovered" but could “not confirm those deaths at this time.”
At the news conference, Beshear said the region was facing a "moderate risk of excessive rain," and that some areas could see flash flooding. Several counties remained under flood warnings and flood watches on Sunday and into the next few days, according to the National Weather Service.
"It really hurts the morale of folks that have seen this amount of rain," the governor said of the expected rain. "We hope, and we certainly don’t believe for the region, [that] it’s going to cause additional massive flooding, but we have to be prepared," he said.
Rescue officials have been struggling to reach hard-hit areas, some of which are among the poorest in the nation.
At the news conference, the governor became emotional as he described how poor cellphone service and undercounts of the population made it hard to determine how many people are missing.
“I wish we had a firm, real number of the people that are missing,” he said.
The National Guard has conducted more than 1,000 rescues through air lifts, Beshear said.
Amid complaints that hotels, motels and shelters in the area are full, Beshear said at the news conference that the state government plans to work directly with hotels to fund rooms, and that officials are setting up a shelter at Buckhorn Lake State Resort Park.
“Our commitment is we’re going to get everybody back up on their feet — every single person, no matter how long it takes and no matter what it takes," Beshear said at the news conference.
The governor urged people to donate new clothes and drinking water, and to send money to the Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief Fund, which he said will pay for the funerals of the victims.
"People shouldn’t have to go through a reimbursement process that takes months when they’re grieving for a loved one," the governor said. "No forms, no applications, we’ll work directly with the funeral homes.”
FEMA announced Friday that President Joe Biden issued a major disaster declaration, making federal assistance available to the state.
On Saturday, Biden said he added Individual Assistance to that declaration with the help of further assisting displaced families.
Additionally, 80 FEMA workers are on the ground and the governor plans to request more, Perry County Judge Executive Scott Alexander said at the news conference.
“This is not going to be an easy rebuild, but I’m here to tell you that the commonwealth of Kentucky is going to stand with you every single day until it’s fully rebuilt," Beshear said.
'A long process'
In the tiny community of Wayland, Phillip Michael Caudill was working Saturday to clean up debris and recover what he could from the home he shares with his wife and three children. The waters had receded from the house but left a mess behind along with questions about what he and his family will do next.
“We’re just hoping we can get some help,” said Caudill, who is staying with his family at Jenny Wiley State Park in a free room, for now.
Caudill, a firefighter in the nearby Garrett community, went out on rescues around 1 a.m. Thursday but had to ask to leave around 3 a.m. so he could go home, where waters were rapidly rising.
“That’s what made it so tough for me,” he said. “Here I am, sitting there, watching my house become immersed in water and you got people begging for help. And I couldn’t help,” Caudill said.
The water was up to his knees when he arrived home, and he had to wade across the yard and carry two of his kids out to the car. He could barely shut the door of his SUV as they were leaving.
In Garrett on Saturday, couches, tables and pillows soaked by flooding were stacked in yards along the foothills of the mountainous region as people worked to clear out debris and shovel mud from driveways and roads under now-blue skies.
Hubert Thomas, 60, and his nephew Harvey, 37, fled to Jenny Wiley State Resort Park in Prestonsburg after floodwaters destroyed their home in Pine Top late Wednesday night. The two were able to rescue their dog, CJ, but fear the damages to the home are beyond repair. Hubert Thomas, a retired coal miner, said his entire life savings was invested in his home.
“I’ve got nothing now,” he said.
Harvey Thomas, an EMT, said he fell asleep to the sound of light rain, and it wasn’t long until his uncle woke him up warning him that water was getting dangerously close to the house.
“It was coming inside and it just kept getting worse,” he said. “There was, at one point, we looked at the front door and mine and his cars was playing bumper cars, like bumper boats, in the middle of our front yard.”
As for what’s next, Harvey Thomas said he doesn’t know, but he’s thankful to be alive.
“Mountain people are strong,” he said. “And like I said it’s not going to be tomorrow, probably not next month, but I think everybody’s going to be okay. It’s just going to be a long process.”