By Aya Elamroussi, Andy Rose and Ray Sanchez, CNN
The death toll in flood-stricken parts of eastern Kentucky climbed to at least 25 and will almost certainly “get worse” as first responders work to account for missing residents, the state’s governor said Saturday.
Gov. Andy Beshear said the immediate goal is “to get as many people to safety as possible” following what officials have described as unprecedented flooding in the region.
Hundreds of people have been rescued by air and water in recent days by National Guard members from Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia as well as by officers from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife and State Police.
“It is a really hard thing right now, with how wide the destruction is (and) areas that are impacted, to get any firm number on people that are missing,” said Beshear, urging residents to report missing persons.
Cellphone service is still out in some counties, and water systems are overwhelmed, according to the governor. One hospital had no water.
“To everyone in Eastern Kentucky, we are going to be there for you today and in the weeks, months and years ahead. We will get through this together,” Beshear said in a tweet Saturday.
Rescue efforts have been hindered due to power outages persisting, with more than 10,000 homes and businesses remaining in the dark late Saturday, according to PowerOutage.us.
Massive floodwaters washed out homes in several counties, leaving some residents scrambling to their rooftops to escape the deadly flooding. Officials believe thousands have been affected by the storms, and efforts to rebuild some areas may take years, the governor said Friday.
“It is devastating for us, especially after the western part of our state went through the worst tornado disaster we’ve ever seen just seven-and-a-half months ago,” Beshear told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, referencing a series of tornadoes that ripped through Kentucky in December and left 74 people dead.
Hazard, Kentucky, in Perry County is one of the hardest-hit areas in the region, and rescues there remained underway Saturday, Mayor Donald “Happy” Mobelini said.
“We’ve got a team of coroners here working the three-county area with cadaver dogs just trying to find people and identify people,” Mobelini told CNN’s Pamela Brown Saturday.
Mobelini said his discussions with officials in Perry, Breathitt and Knott counties lead him to believe the final figure will be far higher than the current official death toll of 25.
“It’s over 30-some total for just our three counties, and I think that’s just the tip of the iceberg, truthfully,” Mobelini said
Hazard’s water treatment plant is completely offline, with more than 20,000 residents relying entirely on shipments of bottled water. And even after the floodwaters recede, many will not be able to rebuild, the mayor said.
Couple staying in car vow to help with cleanup
Clay Nickles and his wife, McKenzie, spoke to CNN Saturday from their car after their home in the city of Neon, in Letcher County, was damaged two days ago.
“All of our family so far has been accounted for but we have neighbors who have not,” Clay Nickles said.
Nickles described Neon as a tight-knit community, “like Mayberry with Andy Griffith.”
“Everybody, whether they’re family or not, is like family,” he said. “In an event like this typically, if one or two people get devastated, everybody joins in to help. In this situation, everyone is devastated.”
Nickles said they will leave their car later to help with cleanup efforts.
“This is tough, but we will get through this,” Nickles said. “These people were fighters and mountain people have 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 the numbers factor into the state’s overall death toll.
The four children were siblings, according to their aunt Brandi Smith, who said the family’s mobile home became overwhelmed with floodwaters and forced the family to rush to the roof for safety. She added her sister, Amber, and her partner tried to save their children but were unable.
“They were holding on to them. The water got so strong, it just washed them away,” Smith told CNN.
Eastern Kentucky was expected to get some relief from heavy rain Saturday. Rain is possible Sunday into Monday, when there is a slight risk 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 gone
The city 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 buildings wiped out include a two-story church, pastor Peter Youmans told CNN Friday.
“All that you see is scraps of cement,” Youmans said of his Davidson Baptist Church, and witnessed floodwaters also wiping out a house nearby.
“It started raining so hard that it was clearly coming up into the parking lot,” he told CNN’s Jim Sciutto. “And then it got up into our house. That’s when I knew it was really bad because it’s 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 flooding, trailers were moving down the creek, he said.
Parishioners would typically be helping the church at a time like this, yet they are “taking care of their own problems right now,” he noted.
“And some of them are in as bad or worse shape than we are in,” he said. “We’re just thankful that the house was not destroyed with my grandchildren in it.”
‘I’m still sort of traumatized’
Meanwhile, Joseph Palumbo in Perry County is struggling to reach his home after another house washed up onto a road on the way, blocking access.
“We walk to the end of our driveway, and there is an entire double-wide trailer smashed into our bridge,” Palumbo told CNN Friday. The trailer had been across Highway 28 from his own house for decades, he said.
“I’m still sort of traumatized because never in my life have I seen something like this,” Palumbo said.
And because the trailer landed on a small bridge over a creek, he and his girlfriend, Danielle Langdon, have no way of walking around it.
“We’re climbing up a ladder, scaling across a tin roof, mud everywhere,” Palumbo said. “The first day, we’re sliding across the tin roof to get to the other side.”
The resident of the destroyed home was not inside at the time of flooding and made it through the storm unharmed.
“I have friends that I haven’t seen in years reaching out to me,” Palumbo said. “It’s really heartening to see the way people help each other.”
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CNN’s Jalen Beckford, Raja Razek, Amy Simonson, Sharif Paget, Derek Van Dam, Joe Johns, Caroll Alvarado, Amanda Musa, Claudia Dominguez, Elizabeth Wolfe, Theresa Waldrop and Lauren Lee contributed to this report.