WHITESBURG, Ky. — One round of rainstorms after another blew through eastern Kentucky on Monday, deepening the misery of an already desperate region. Floodwaters again swallowed the roads that had recently reopened to allow emergency workers to scour the remote hills and valleys for survivors; creeks once again swelled into the streets of small towns where people had just begun the gloomy work of emptying houses of their waterlogged contents.
Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky confirmed on Monday that the death toll from last week’s floods had risen to 37, but warned that countless people were still missing. “There are hundreds of unaccounted for people, minimum,” he said at a news briefing. “We just don’t have a firm grasp on that. I wish we did. There are a lot of reasons why it’s nearly impossible. But I want to make sure that we’re not giving either false hope or false information.”
The governor emphasized that responders were still in the search-and-rescue phase, but that the operation was exceedingly difficult because of impassable roads and washed-out bridges. In some remote parts of the mountains, there was not a reliable count of the population even before the floods, leaving the authorities dependent on word-of-mouth from residents and reports from family members.
“You just wonder how someone can rebuild from something like that,” said Sean Osborne, a contractor who was assessing the damage of a house in the debris-cluttered streets of Whitesburg on Monday. He described the twisted frames of mobile homes and the splintered trees he had come across as he drove through the area in recent days, evidence of how hard recovery is going to be.
The roads in and out of many of the hollows of eastern Kentucky are narrow and were crumbling even before the floods, barely maintained by cash-strapped local governments. Many mountain communities consist of a row of homes lining these roads, often with a creek running through the backyards. Last week’s catastrophic flooding, and the mudslides that followed, left some of these communities all but isolated from the outside world, doubly so given that cellphone service has been down in so many places.
The storms that came in Sunday night into Monday, running off already saturated soils, only made things worse.
“It rained all night,” said Gwen Johnson, who helps run a community center and bakery just off Coal Miners Highway in Letcher County. In the nearby town of Fleming-Neon, she said, “they had cleaned all kinds of debris out of the buildings and people’s homes, and a lot of it just washed down into the streets.”
Ms. Johnson and others had been cooking whatever people brought to the community center — corn, soup, canned pork — and delivering meals on four-wheelers to those who could not make it to the center in person. But it was so hard to get supplies, even drinkable water, that there was a limit to what they could do.
Even aside from the storms, there were deep concerns about the sweltering days ahead, given that around 11,000 customers were still without power and more than twice that number were without water. Another 44,000 were under a boil water advisory, the governor said on Monday morning.
Many people in the mountains rely on small water supply lines running down the creeks and hollows, and repairs to these lines could take weeks, said Greg Stumbo, a former state representative, who was unloading relief supplies at a recreation center in Knott County. “It’s going to be bad when it gets hot again,” he said. Houses were already baking in a sea of sticky mud, he said, and “you can’t hardly clean all that stuff up if you don’t have water and electricity.”
Cleaning was the herculean task that lay before the exhausted citizens of Whitesburg, a town of roughly 2,000 people that hugs the Kentucky River. On Monday afternoon, the hilly streets were lined by soggy mountains of carpets, air conditioning ducts, toys, couches and chairs. On the sidewalk in front of a church stood a pew, before a vast selection of books, including hymnals, prayer guides, a Quran and a copy of “The Joy of Trivia.”
“It’s watching people pick up everything they worked for their whole lives,” said Kristie Profitt. Ms. Profitt’s house on Highway 7 had been her grandmother’s, a place central to family history. Her family had started and run the post office in the tiny community of Isom and her grandmother’s father had the first motor truck in town.
Now, she was dreading going through the house, confirming what she feared was lost when water as high as her waist surged through: the oak bed that had been in the family for generations; the Bible that had belonged to her grandmother, who had died last November.
“It’s just hard to see the history having to be torn down,” she said, “and history being floated away and set out for trash.”
At the end of Main Street stood the 118-year-old house where Melissa Griffith has lived for about a dozen years. The river was just a few feet away, but she never knew it to have been a problem. Her church baptizes people in it, and she has seen people cross it on foot. During the worst flood she had heard about, in 1937, the water didn’t climb high enough to reach the front step.
This time it came rushing inside, and one could see evidence of the water’s ferocious power. Her refrigerator had been carried across the kitchen, and the ceilings were stained with mud. But there were also signs of how strangely capricious nature could be: Her paper towel holder stayed exactly where she had left it, untouched.
Ms. Griffith had lost almost everything, and her home was uninsured. But her attention was elsewhere. “My job is still to take care of others,” she said. Ms. Griffith is a therapist, and she had been checking in with patients. Many of them had very little, she said, and now the trauma of the flood would combine with the trauma of poverty. “They’re already struggling financially,” she said. “And then you take away everything.”