Governor Andy Beshear lamented that the death toll “is likely to rise” following what officials described as unprecedented flooding in the region.
“To everyone in Eastern Kentucky, we’re going to be here for you today and in the weeks, months and years to come. We’re going to get through this together,” Beshear said in a tweet on Saturday.
The death toll is expected to rise in the coming days as rescuers search for new areas that are currently impassable.
“It’s a type of flooding that even a flooded area has never seen in our lifetimes,” Beshear told CNN after returning from an aerial flood tour in Breathitt County on Friday. “Hundreds of houses have been destroyed and there is nothing left.”
There is no accurate account of the number of people missing afterward, as cell service is down in many areas. “It’s going to be very difficult to get a good number,” the governor said.
Clay Nickels and his wife, McKenzie, spoke to CNN on Saturday from their car after their home in the Letcher County town of Neon was damaged two days ago.
“So far our whole family has been considered, but we have neighbors who haven’t been,” said Clay Nickles.
Nickles described Neon as a tight-knit community, “like Mayberry with Andy Griffith”.
“Everyone, whether family or not, is like family,” he said. “In an event like this, usually if one or two people are devastated, everyone joins in to help. In this situation, everyone is devastated.”
Nickles said they would leave their car later to help with cleanup efforts.
“It’s tough, but we’ll get through it,” Nickles said. “These people were fighters and the mountain people had a lot of heart.”
Deaths have been reported in Knott, Perry, Letcher and Clay counties. Fourteen people, including four children, were confirmed dead Friday afternoon in Knott County, according to the county coroner. It was not immediately clear how that number factored into the state’s total death toll.
The four children were siblings, according to their aunt Brandi Smith, who said the family’s mobile home was submerged by floodwaters and forced the family to scramble to the roof to safety. She added that her sister, Amber, and her partner tried to save their children but couldn’t.
“They were hanging on to it. The water got so strong it swept them away,” Smith told CNN.
Eastern Kentucky should get some relief from Saturday’s heavy rains. Rain is possible Sunday through Monday, when there is a slight chance of excessive rain over the region, according to the Weather Prediction Center. Affected areas may include eastern Tennessee and along the Appalachians of North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.
An entire church disappeared
The town of Hazard in southeastern Kentucky had seven of its nine bridges impassable, an “unheard of” number, Mayor Donald “Happy” Mobelini said Friday morning.
Among the destroyed buildings is a two-story church, Pastor Peter Youmans told CNN on Friday.
“All you see are pieces of cement,” Youmans said of his Davidson Baptist Church, and saw floodwaters also smash a nearby home.
“It started raining so hard it was clearly coming into the parking lot,” he told CNN’s Jim Sciutto. “And then he came up to our house. That’s when I knew it was really bad because he’d never been in our house before. It was about a foot .”
A small creek in front of Youmans’ house is about 8 or 10 feet wide and normally less than 6 inches deep, but during the flood trailers were coming down the creek, he said.
Parishioners would usually help out the church at a time like this, but they’re “dealing with their own issues right now,” he noted.
“And some of them are in as bad or worse condition than ours,” he said. “We’re just grateful the house wasn’t destroyed with my grandchildren in it.”
“I’m still a little traumatized”
Meanwhile, Joseph Palumbo in Perry County struggles to reach his home after another house washes up on a road along the way, blocking access.
“We’re walking to the end of our driveway, and there’s an entire double-wide trailer that’s crashed onto our deck,” Palumbo told CNN on Friday. The trailer had been crossing Highway 28 from its own home for decades, he said.
“I’m still a bit traumatized because never in my life have I seen anything like this,” Palumbo said.
And because the trailer landed on a small bridge over a stream, he and his girlfriend, Danielle Langdon, have no way of getting around it.
“We’re climbing up a ladder, climbing over a tin roof, mud everywhere,” Palumbo said. “On the first day, we slide over the tin roof to get to the other side.”
The resident of the destroyed house was not inside at the time of the flood and came through the storm unscathed.
“I have friends that I haven’t seen in years contact me,” Palumbo said. “It’s really encouraging to see how people help each other.”
At least 75% of Perry County suffered significant damage to homes and bridges, County Judge Scott Alexander told CNN on Thursday.
“It was a historic storm that we encountered, I don’t think we’ve ever seen this much rain in 24 hours and it devastated the community,” Alexander said. “People have lost homes, cars, it’s just an unusual occurrence.”
CNN’s Raja Razek, Amy Simonson, Derek Van Dam, Joe Johns, Caroll Alvarado, Amanda Musa, Claudia Dominguez, Elizabeth Wolfe, Theresa Waldrop and Lauren Lee contributed to this report.