Death count rises as recovery effort begins for Eastern Kentucky floods

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Jul. 30—Blake Vickers

As of Friday evening, 25 Kentuckians are dead (with children among that number) after a historic and devastating series of floods hit multiple counties across Eastern Kentucky. The death toll is expected to rise as rescue teams continue to look for survivors.

"This event is devastating, and I do believe it will end up being one of the most significant, deadly floods that we have had in Kentucky in at least a very long time," Gov. Andy Beshear said during an press conference on Thursday morning. "There are gonna be a lot of people out there that need our help. There's going to be a lot of people that are gonna be displaced. This is yet another disaster that is going to take some time to rebuild."

An 81-year-old Perry County woman was the first confirmed death. Two more fatalities, one in Knott County and another in Perry County were announced shortly after.

"Unfortunately, I expect double digit deaths with this flooding. That's something that we rarely see... We're gonna need people to take some steps to keep them safe, otherwise, even the total we expect could grow. This isn't just a disaster, this is an ongoing natural disaster," Beshear said.

More heavy rain is expected to fall into the weekend for the areas of Magoffin, Pike, Powell, Wolfe, Johnson, Floyd, Martin, Laurel, Clay, and Leslie Counties.

"If the water is close to your house, if you are in a place that floods regularly or with a lot of rain might flood, the ground is really saturated," Beshear said. "If you're in these areas or even close to them, and you can go stay with someone else tonight, please do. Last night, we lost people in the middle of the night and maybe even in their sleep."

The Kentucky State Police have dedicated phone lines to those who might be missing family members in flood areas.

To report someone missing in Breathitt, Knott, Letcher, Leslie, or Perry Counties to contact their KSP Post 13 at 606-435-6069.

For Magoffin, Johnson, Martin, Floyd, or Pike Counties, call KSP Post 9 at 606-433-7711.

For Jackson, Owsley, or Lee Counties, contact KSP Post 7 at 859-623-2404.

For Wolfe or Morgan Counties, contact KSP Post 8 at 606-784-4127.

For Harlan County, contact KSP Post 10 at 606-573-3131.

The governor asked people to keep calling the lines to report missing people, even if the lines are busy. It is a tactic the state learned when dealing with the deadly tornadoes which impacted western Kentucky last year.

"What we found out with the tornadoes, is sometimes we assumed the worst. But then we got the miracle that we prayed for and were able to account for people," Beshear said.

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell was on the ground in Kentucky on Friday afternoon. She observed damage in the region through a helicopter tour across Perry County and the Jackson-Breathitt area with Beshear.

"We saw many homes that are still inundated, where the water has not receded. We also saw homes that I think are going to have access issues for some time just because the roads are out and bridges are out. We know that there is definitely some significant impact to the communities we just flew over," Criswell said.

"We're gonna work really closely with the governor's team to document what we saw today and add additional assistance as warranted based on what we just saw in this flight," Criswell said before turning to address Beshear. "We have urban search and rescue teams that are already on the ground... We'll continue, governor, to support any of your life saving needs as well as recovery from this really tragic event in Eastern Kentucky."

At least 33,000 utility customers were without power. The flooding extended into western Virginia and southern West Virginia, across a region where poverty is endemic, according to the Associated Press. Damage and restoration estimate costs will continue to be added up over the course of the next few days.

As of Thursday, the Kentucky National Guard currently has four aircraft conducting reconnaissance, communication, and hoist operations in the affecting areas. Some survivors have been spotted sitting on rooftops or in trees.

Regarding communications with the federal government, Beshear has been in contact with the White House and FEMA, with the latter's director personally contacting the governor. Beshear said a FEMA response team would be on the ground in Kentucky by Thursday night. On Friday morning, the governor announced that President Biden had approved Kentucky's request for a disaster declaration.

Beshear also contacted West Virginia Governor Jim Justice regarding the floods, the state will be sending two aircraft to the commonwealth to help out.

Beshear said that the statewide state of emergency will allow the state to be able to bring additional resources and deploy the National Guard to counties that have yet to declare their own state of emergencies yet. The declaration also allows the state to request additional help from the federal government.

The state has set up a relief fund and is taking donations online at https://secure.kentucky.gov/FormServices/Finance/EKYFloodRelief.