Kentucky faces devastation as toll from ﬂoods is expected to climb
By Remy Tumin and Mike Ives
As Kentucky residents begin to sift through debris from last week’s ﬂooding, the reality of the devastation was beginning to settle in, with hundreds of people displaced from their homes, costly damage to infrastructure and a death toll of 37 that was expected to climb.
Stephen Bowling, director of the Breathitt County Public Library in Jackson, Kentucky, said he could see it as soon as patrons walked in the door.
“Right now, what we’re still seeing on the faces and voices of people co-ming in is total shock,” said Bowling, who is also the Jackson city historian. “We’ve dealt with ﬂoods for generations here, for hundreds of years, but this is far and above beyond anything we’ve dealt with in the past. They can’t believe the level of devastation and destruction.”
Eastern Kentucky dodged what had been predicted to be heavy rain overnight into Tuesday morning, as the storms shifted westward instead. But ﬂ ood advisories were still in effect for several rivers in the state, the National Weather Service said, and rain could return Thursday into Friday — unwelcome news for a water-soaked state that registered some of the worst ﬂ ooding in its history after heavy rainfall caused ﬂ oods and mudslides last week.
Bowling said one woman arrived at the library Monday shaking and in tears “because she was so ashamed that her library books got washed away when her home was destroyed,” he said. “I told her that was the least of her concern.”
Patrons were coming in to use the library’s internet connection to ﬁ le claims with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Bowling said, and some were looking for books and DVDs to “try to think about something else for a while.”
That has been hard to do when hundreds of people are still unac-counted for across eastern Kentucky. Gov. Andy Beshear said the death toll remained at 37 as of Tuesday morning but he expected that number to grow by day’s end.
“It is absolutely devastating out there, it’s going to take years to rebuild,” Beshear said at a news conference Tuesday morning. “People left with absolutely nothing, homes that we don’t know where they are, just entirely gone and we continue to ﬁ nd bodies of our brothers and sisters that we have lost.”
He said there was one additional rescue Monday, but “we’re going to have some bad news to report later today, too.”
The rain had largely moved out of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia on Tuesday morning, giving way to drier conditions through Tuesday afternoon, meteorologists said, and introducing the next weather challenge: heat.
According to the National Weather Service, temperatures in eastern Kentuc-ky could reach the high 80s with a heat index of 95 by Tuesday afternoon. On Wednesday, the heat index is expected to reach 101 degrees.
“Areas that are devastated, that we’re still getting power to some places, are going to be dangerously hot,” Beshear said. His ofﬁ ce announced that cooling centers had opened across the state.
Showers and storms could return to parts of Kentucky by Thursday and Friday.
Since last week, the worst of the devastation from the rain has been concentrated in roughly a half-dozen counties in the Appalachian region in Kentucky’s southeast. Those communities have been upended with severe damage to homes and families. Beshear said that 191 displaced residents had sought refuge in state park facilities and 429 others were staying in 11 emer-gency shelters, which are managed by the state and the Red Cross. The rescue agency said it housed 590 residents Monday night.
Power is slowly being restored. About 7,600 Kentucky households were without power as of Tuesday afternoon, according to Kentucky Power. And in some places, ﬂ oodwaters had, once again, swallowed roads that had reope-ned to let emergency workers through after the initial ﬂ ooding last week.
As rainstorms blew through eastern Kentucky’s remote hills and valleys Monday, rescue workers were still trying to move through areas where the ﬂ oods, and the mudslides they unleashed, had destroyed infrastructure and cut off cellphone service.
Among the emergency responders was Bowling, who also works for the Jackson Fire Department. Last week was his 18th ﬂ ooding event. Days later, he remained shocked by what he had seen.
“When you round the corner and there are homes there that have never had issues with water or rain and the only thing that’s left are foundations,” he said. “These are historic homes that have been there for hundreds of years.”
He said Jackson and other Appa-lachian towns are masters in resilience.
“That’s what mountain people are,” he said. “We are a phoenix, we get washed away, burned down and come back in a different form but we always come back.”