Gov. Andy Beshear said the immediate goal was to “get as many people to safety as possible” following what officials described as unprecedented flooding in the region.
Hundreds of people have been rescued by air and water in recent days by members of the National Guard from Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia, as well as officers from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife and state police.
“It’s a very difficult thing right now, given how extensive the destruction (and) affected areas are, to get a firm number on the missing,” he said, urging residents to report missing persons.
According to the governor, some districts still lack cell phone service and water systems are overstretched. A hospital has no water.
“To everyone in Eastern Kentucky, we’re going to be here for you today and in the weeks, months and years to come. We’ll get through this together,” Beshear said in a tweet Saturday.
Hazard Mayor Donald “Happy” Mobellini told CNN’s Pamela Brown on Saturday, “We’re in the tri-county area with cadaver dogs trying to locate people and identify people.” Mobellini’s discussions with officials in Perry, Breathitt and Knott counties led him to believe the final death toll would be higher than the official death toll of 25.
“It’s over 30 for our three counties, and I think that’s the tip of the iceberg, honestly,” Mobellini said.
The mayor said the city’s water treatment plant is completely offline, leaving more than 20,000 residents completely reliant on bottled water deliveries. And many cannot rebuild after the flood recedes.
The couple staying in the car has vowed to help with the cleanup
Clay Nickles and his wife, Mackenzie, spoke to CNN Saturday from their car after their home in Neon, Letcher County, was damaged two days ago.
“All of our family has been accounted for so far, but we have neighbors that aren’t,” Clay Nickles said.
Nickles described Neon as a tight-knit community “like Mayberry with Andy Griffith.”
“Everyone is like family, family or not,” he said. “Usually in an event like this, if one or two people are devastated, everyone pitches in to help. In this situation, everyone is devastated.”
Nickles said they will leave their car later to help with cleanup efforts.
“It’s tough, but we’ll get through this,” Nickles said. “These people are fighters and the mountain people have a lot of heart.”
Deaths were reported in Knott, Perry, Letcher and Clay counties. The county coroner said 14 people, including four children, had been confirmed dead in Knott County on Friday afternoon. It was not immediately clear how the numbers factored into the state’s overall death toll.
The four children are siblings, according to their aunt, Brandi Smith, who said the family’s mobile home was engulfed in floodwaters and the family rushed to the roof for safety. He tried to save his sister Amber and her partner’s children, but couldn’t.
“They were holding on to them. The water got so strong it washed them away,” Smith told CNN.
Eastern Kentucky is expected to get some relief from heavy rain on Saturday. According to the Weather Forecast Center, rain is possible from Sunday to Monday. Affected areas include eastern Tennessee and the Appalachians of North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.
An entire church is gone
The city of Hazard, in southeastern Kentucky, has seven of its nine bridges impassable, an “unheard of” number, Mayor Donald “Happy” Mobellini said Friday morning.
Among the destroyed buildings was a two-story church, pastor Peter Youmans told CNN Friday.
“All you see is pieces of cement,” Youmans said of his Davidson Baptist Church, and saw floodwaters wash away a nearby house.
“It started raining really hard and it was clearly coming into the parking lot,” he told CNN’s Jim Ciuto. “Then it woke up in our house. I knew it was really bad because it had never been in our house before. It was a blow.”
A small creek in front of the Youmans’ home is about 8 or 10 feet wide and usually less than 6 inches deep, but during floods, trailers move down the creek, he said.
Parishioners usually help the church at such a time, but they are “taking care of their own problems now,” he noted.
“Some of them are as bad or worse than us,” he said. “We are thankful that the house was not destroyed with my grandchildren.”
‘I’m still kind of in shock’
Meanwhile, Joseph Palumbo in Perry County struggles to reach his home.
“We’re walking to the end of our driveway and a full double-wide trailer has smashed into our bridge,” Palumbo told CNN Friday. The trailer was across Highway 28 from his own home for decades, he said.
“I’m still kind of in shock because I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” Palumbo said.
The trailer landed on a small bridge over a creek, leaving no way for him and his girlfriend, Danielle Langdon, to walk around it.
“We’re climbing a ladder, across a tin roof, mud everywhere,” Palumbo said. “The first day, we slide across the tin roof to get to the other side.”
The occupant of the dilapidated house was not inside at the time of the flood and passed through the storm unscathed.
“Friends I haven’t seen in years have contacted me,” Palumbo said. “It’s great to see people helping each other.”
CNN’s Jalen Beckford, Raja Razek, Amy Simonson, Derek Van Dam, Joe Johns, Carol Alvarado, Amanda Musa, Claudia Dominguez, Elizabeth Wolfe, Theresa Waldrop and Lauren Lee contributed to this report.