LOUISVILLE, Ky. – For days, a search-and-rescue team led by Phillip Dix has combed debris-clogged creekbanks looking for survivors in flood-ravaged eastern Kentucky. His crew is used to the stifling heat and humidity but is laboring under the grind of 12-hour shifts spent pulling people from danger.
The scope of the devastation and the conversations with people who lost everything keeps the rescuers going, said Dix, who leads the Memphis, Tennessee-based team.
“It’s a job to us, but talking to the local people, that kind of brings it down to the human level, which our guys have to deal with,” Dix said Wednesday. “You can’t just turn that switch off when you’re talking to someone who’s lost everything they had.”
Nearly a week since floodwaters consumed parts of Appalachia, rescue missions were winding down while supplies poured into what looms as a massive relief effort. Floodwaters wrecked homes and businesses, and some escaped the surging waters with only the clothes they wore.
Initial expenditures from a relief fund opened by Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear were being distributed to pay funeral expenses of flood victims. The statewide death toll is 37, Beshear said.
Temperatures surged as people continued shoveling out from the wreckage. The rising heat and humidity meant heat index values were near 100 Wednesday, a steam bath that will continue through Thursday evening, the National Weather Service said.
“The guys are tired,” Dix said from Knott County, where his crew resumed their mission on foot and boats. "So you’ve got to watch them, make sure they’re hydrated more than usual.”
That included tending to the dogs assisting the crews. The K-9s were being rotated to keep them from overheating, said Deborah Burnett, a K-9 coordinator.
“We’re splashing some water on the dogs ... just to keep them nice and hydrated,” she said.
Dix's team rescued 16 people during a two-day stretch, he said. The rescued had no cell service, no electricity, no way out due to damaged roads and bridges and some were running short of food. The team reunited families, but also found two bodies.
“The area that we were in, the houses were just gone,” Dix said. "These people that have lost everything they’ve got, they still make it a point to thank us for being up here.”
Cooling centers were opened after forecasters warned of the risk of heat-related illnesses.
In Breathitt County, plans were made to deliver supplies by foot in areas where roads were washed out, said county Judge-Executive Jeff Noble.
“It just devastates me to see what pain people are going through,” he said. “My staff and workers, they’ve worked nonstop and they’re still working nonstop, and we’ll continue to do that until every holler is open and every road is open.”
More than 1,300 people were rescued and crews were still trying to reach some people cut off by floods or mudslides. About 5,000 customers still lacked electricity in eastern Kentucky, the governor said. Emergency shelters and area state parks housed hundreds of residents who fled homes that were destroyed or badly damaged. Many more are staying with relatives and friends.
More than 400 National Guardsmen have been deployed across the disaster area, delivering water and other relief. Beshear said water stations are set up every few miles along some roadways.
“Our goal is to provide so much water they (local officials) say ‘stop sending us water,’” he said.
Infrastructure also took a pounding from flooding. Water systems sustained heavy damage, and some roads and bridges were “eaten away” by floodwaters, the governor said.
“It’s going to take significant time and significant dollars to restore what was destroyed,” he said.
Beshear said a special legislative session will likely be needed to devise a relief package for the flood-stricken region. The governor holds the power to reconvene lawmakers for a special session.
The outpouring of support was evident across the area. Volunteers helped remove debris from homes, while others served up meals. Beshear said it's a time for people to lean on each other and urged them to seek help in dealing with the trauma.
“Remember, it’s OK not to be OK," the Democratic governor said. "I don’t think our brains or hearts are designed to deal with trauma and loss at this level.”
Robyn Casey Caldwell joined the relief effort while coping with her own grief. The elementary school kindergarten aide has spent long days delivering water, medication, bedding, baby food and tools in flood-torn Knott County.
Weighing heavily has been the loss of her cousin Jay Edward Bush, a 57-year-old Army veteran who died Wednesday, just hours before the flood came. The next day, his wife’s home was washed away. She lost everything.
“I don’t think there has been time to even think — we just do what needs to be done,” she said. “But I’m sure there have been many people that just find a quiet place and break down and cry. When I find time, I will surely cry.”
The governor said the magnitude of the losses “takes your breath away.” Many people are left with “absolutely nothing,” with “every single possession wiped out,” he said.
“Imagine scratching and clawing for 10, 15 years to be able to have something you call a home," the governor said. "But it’s not insured and it’s wiped out, as is every other thing that you own.
“Repairing these lives is going to be challenging, but we’re up for it,” he added.
President Joe Biden declared a federal disaster to direct relief money to counties flooded after 8 to 10 1/2 inches (20 to 27 centimeters) of rain fell in just 48 hours last week in the Appalachian mountain region.
The flooding also hit areas just across the state line in Virginia and West Virginia.
Schreiner reported from Frankfort, Kentucky. Associated Press Writers Rebecca Reynolds in Louisville, Kentucky, and Leah Willingham in Charleston, West Virginia, contributed to this report.