National Guard soldiers rushed to distribute bottled water in flood-ravaged eastern Kentucky as forecasters warned more rain was coming to the area.
In the days following the historic floods that inundated the Appalachian region, water availability emerged as a big concern for victims after floodwaters severely damaged water supply systems. As donations poured into the area, water was a top priority, along with cleaning supplies.
“We will supply water until these counties and regions beg us to stop supplying water,” Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said Thursday. “As hot as it is, with so many systems that are down, we want a mountain of water there.”
National Guard soldiers delivered more than 11,600 cases of water, the governor said, as intense heat and humidity added to the misery as people continued to shovel out wreckage left by flooding that hit in the middle of the night a week ago.
In Knott County, Kirsten Gomez said she drank about five cases of water a day — for drinking and for cleaning mud-covered objects that can be salvaged.
Her double-wide trailer was badly damaged by floodwaters from nearby Troublesome Creek. She was reconnected to the local water system on Wednesday, but the water was so “muddy” that her family only used it for washing, she said.
Volunteers pass through the area several times a day, dropping off crates of water and other essentials, she said.
“It looks like an assembly line, people bringing in water,” Gomez said. “We try not to take so many because we know other people need it too.”
Water service has been restored for many people in the area, the governor said. But about 13,500 service connections remained without water and another 41,000 service connections were subject to boil water advisories, Beshear said. Work continues on heavily damaged water systems, but other systems have been “wiped out,” the governor said Wednesday. In some areas, repairing water systems could take weeks or even months, he said.
Water crews from across the state are assisting with repairs, Beshear said.
Kentucky bourbon distillers have also stepped up their efforts by sending tankers and tubs of water — usually reserved for spirits — to the flood-ravaged region, said Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. Gregory said his group is working with state emergency officials to prioritize areas and coordinate deliveries.
“When Kentucky suffers, we suffer,” Gregory said. “We are all in this together and it is our duty as an iconic industry to step up and do what we can for our fellow Kentucky people.”
Beshear said a special legislative session will likely be needed to craft a relief package for the region. The governor holds the power to reconvene lawmakers for a special session.
The Democratic governor said a state relief package should include help with repairing water systems to save taxpayers from paying for repair costs through higher water rates.
“Because otherwise they will go to taxpayers,” he said. “So people who just lost everything that’s rebuilding would see their water rates skyrocket in what it would cost.”
Damage to area schools will total at least tens of millions of dollars, Beshear said. He said he has spoken with lawmakers about including school aid in the relief package.
Scattered thunderstorms were moving through the area again Thursday, but most were lighter by mid-afternoon, National Weather Service meteorologist Philomon Geertson said.
He said storms are expected to continue moving overnight, which could cause isolated flash flooding. Additionally, a cluster of storms has the potential to cause isolated or scattered flash flooding on Friday, he said. The main concern, he said, is that the saturated ground could cause the rivers to rise rapidly.
The statewide death toll from the historic flooding is 37, the governor said. Amid the massive cleanup, more families were preparing to bury loved ones killed in the floods. Initial expenses from a relief fund opened by Beshear were distributed to pay for the funeral costs of flood victims.
More than 1,300 people were rescued in the days following the storm as teams searched boats and raked debris-clogged stream banks. Beshear said on Thursday that the primary search and rescue mission had been completed and the focus had shifted to welfare checks.
About 3,000 customers were still without power in eastern Kentucky, the governor said. Emergency shelters and state parks in the area housed more than 500 people who fled destroyed or badly damaged homes. Many others are hosted by relatives and friends.
Cooling centers have been opened after forecasters warned of the risk of heat-related illnesses.
President Joe Biden has declared a federal disaster to direct relief money to flooded counties after 8 to 10 1/2 inches (20 to 27 centimeters) of rain fell in just 48 hours last week in the mountainous region of Appalachia.
Flooding also affected areas just across the border in Virginia and West Virginia.
Associated Press writer Rebecca Reynolds in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this report.