HAZARD, Ky. — National Guard firefighters and crews swarmed eastern Kentucky after days of deadly flooding, rescuing hundreds of people who became trapped in the dangerous waters.
Also preparing to send a delegation: the small community of Bremen, Ky., nearly 300 miles away. When Bremen was torn apart last year by one of the worst tornadoes in state history, the mayor of a small town in the east of the state came to help with the cleanup. This town, Hindman, was among the hardest hit by flooding this week. The mayor of Bremen therefore immediately began planning trips across the state with trucks full of supplies – even as his own community continued to rebuild.
“I said, ‘You were here in December and helped us,'” Mayor Allen Miller of Bremen told the mayor of Hindman in a phone call. “‘Now it’s time for me to return the favor.'”
Officials have backed efforts like these as a testament to a kind of generosity embedded in Kentucky culture, a spirit forged over generations of hardship in which communities have had to rely on each other for support. get out.
But this round of support is also a stark reminder of the turmoil caused by the natural disaster that has gripped the state in recent months and will make recovery from the latest calamity all the more difficult. Officials said on Saturday that at least 25 people had been killed in the floods (this figure was updated to 26 on Sunday morning), but it could take weeks for the scale of the human toll and physical devastation become clear.
“I wish I could tell you why we continue to be affected here in Kentucky,” Gov. Andy Beshear said during a briefing during which he updated residents on the rising death toll and posted a feeling of anguish and exhaustion that many in the state felt. after recurring disasters, including a powerful ice storm last year that knocked out power to 150,000 people in eastern Kentucky, a flash flood last July that left many people stranded in their homes, and the few December tornadoes that carved a nearly 200-mile path of destruction and killed 80 people.
“I wish I could tell you why areas where people may not have much continue to be affected and lose everything,” the governor continued. “I can’t tell you why, but I know what we are doing in response. And the answer is all we can.
These disasters – especially floods and tornadoes – would be mind-boggling setbacks for any community. But here they have been particularly calamitous, hitting rural areas already deeply vulnerable after decades of decline.
“These places weren’t thriving before,” said Jason Bailey, executive director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, a nonpartisan think tank, noting the erosion of the coal industry and the loss of manufacturing jobs. . “To even get back to where they were is a long road.”
For communities inundated by the powerful floods, this road has only just begun.
The worst of the devastation was concentrated in about half a dozen counties in the eastern Appalachian region of the state. At least 14 people, including four children, have died in Knott County, officials said. More than 1,400 people have been rescued by boat and helicopter, and thousands remain without power.
Houses were torn from their foundations. Bridges were washed away, leaving some remote communities inaccessible. “I’ve seen ditches forming where there were none from rushing water,” Harlan County Executive Judge Dan Mosley said.
His community has seen only minor flooding, he said, so for the past few days he has accompanied county transportation department workers with dump trucks equipped with snow plows to clear roads. blocked by mud and debris in nearby communities. The worst destruction he saw occurred in Knott and Letcher counties.
“Sheer catastrophic loss is hard to put into words,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my career or even in my life.”
In Breathitt County, at least four deaths had been confirmed, around a dozen people were missing and much of the county remained under water. Many homes in the sparsely populated county were still inaccessible. The community was already struggling to find its place after the last flood.
“We had another flood, a record flood, not 12 months ago, and many families had just started to get their lives back on track,” said Hargis Epperson, the county coroner. “Now it’s happened again, worse this time. Everyone has lost everything, twice.
In Hazard, a town of just over 5,200 in Perry County, 24 adults, five children and four dogs had taken refuge at the First Presbyterian Church – a number that was almost certain to climb in the coming days . Their homes had been flooded or destroyed by a mudslide.
Some of them arrived soaked and covered in mud, said Tracy Counts, a Red Cross worker at the church. All she had to offer them were baby wipes; there was no running water.
“It makes the puzzle harder to solve, but we adapt and realize that,” Ms Counts said. “It’s just hard to ask for help when we’re all in this together.”
Melissa Hensley Powell, 48, was brought to the church after being rescued from her home in Hardshell, an unincorporated area in Breathitt County. She and her boyfriend had pulled her brother, who is paralyzed, out of their house and then brought out a mattress for him to lie on. They kept him dry by holding garbage bags and umbrellas above him.
Two days after her rescue, while having lunch with Little Caesars pizza and bottled water, she said the severity of what she had endured was sinking in. “It’s starting to happen,” she said. “We’re still in that adrenaline rush.”
At the church, a worshiper rented a portable toilet. People dropped off water, blankets and dog food, with donated items filling some of the benches.
“I know people have this image of eastern Kentucky,” Ms. Counts said, acknowledging the painful perception of outsiders in the area as poor and backward. “But we are the first to intervene. We are the first to ask: ‘How can we help?’ »
But now an onslaught of disasters was testing that supportive spirit in profound ways.
It’s hard to tie a single weather event to climate change, but flooding and tornadoes have highlighted the vulnerabilities Kentucky faces. For some, it has also underscored preparedness failures, as experts warn of heavier rainfall, shorter but increasingly powerful flash floods and more erratic weather patterns overall.
“Let us be aware that this is a new normal of incredibly catastrophic events, which will hit our most vulnerable communities.,said Alex Gibson, executive director of Appalshop, the arts and education center in Whitesburg, Ky., comparing the litany of flooding in eastern Kentucky to the devastation suffered by impoverished island nations in the world in the era of climate change.
In vast swaths of the state struggling with the aftermath of flooding and tornadoes, Bailey said, infrastructure was already inadequate and communities had become impoverished. “We have people living on the edge,” he said.
“A lot of the wealth has been extracted,” he said. “In a topography that has been literally stripped of trees and mountainsides, flooding in particular is becoming more likely, more risky, more dangerous – that’s what we’re seeing.”
And as much as communities want to rely on each other to recover from the devastation, it would be difficult to raise the necessary resources on their own.
“The pressure has been immense,” Judge Mosley, who is also an officer with the Kentucky Association of Counties, said of the widespread aftermath of major disasters.
Without outside support, “it would be insurmountable”, he said. “Federal government resources and our faith in God are the only things that will get us through this. »
Shawn Huber contributed report.