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16 dead so far in eastern Kentucky floods, more rain expected next week

Downtown Whitesburg, Ky., in LetcherCo., sees devastating floods after heavy rain in late July.
Katie Myers
Downtown Whitesburg, Ky., in LetcherCo., sees devastating floods after heavy rain in late July.

Gov. Andy Beshear said getting an accurate count of how many people are missing after the widespread flooding in eastern Kentucky is a "real challenge," but so far, 16 people are reported dead.

Though the weather is forecasted to clear up on Saturday, heavy rains are expected to continue over Monday and Tuesday next week.

During a news conference on Friday, Beshear said most of the confirmed deaths were seniors and children and “the toll is only going to go higher.”

“Everybody out there who is scared that they can't get in touch with one of their relatives. I know how you feel. I couldn't get in touch with members of my family after the tornadoes. So please continue to hope,” Beshear said.

President Joe Biden approved a disaster declaration for the 13 impacted Eastern Kentucky counties, and plans to request individual assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The approved area includes Breathitt, Clay, Floyd, Johnson, Knott, Leslie, Letcher, Magoffin, Martin, Owsley, Perry, Pike and Wolfe counties.

The major disaster declaration would cover overtime costs that communities are facing in responding to the situation.

Currently 337 people are sheltering in the 10 Red Cross shelters, six independently run shelters and two state parks. The Team Eastern Kentucky Relief Fund which was set up Thursday evening collected $229,000 in donations. 

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said the agency brought in additional search and rescue teams to support efforts on the ground. Criswell also urged those affected by the floods to start documenting damage and take photographs to request additional federal assistance.

Beshear said it was difficult to pin down the number of missing people due to power outages and lack of cell service.

“We don't have a reliable number of unaccounted people for a couple of reasons. Communication is still very difficult. We're trying to amplify cell service and we hope we're going to get that ready today, but it's going to be really challenging in this area to get a good number of people,” Beshear said.

Beshear said Perry County had lost a few bridges and was concerned about breaches in the Panbowl Dam in Jackson.  A muddy discharge observed at the Panbowl Lake Dam on Thursday combined with rising waters of the North Fork of the Kentucky River prompted officials to recommend people evacuate the area.

Beshear said the flooding has caused widespread problems.

“We’re still trying to figure out how many bridges have been lost in Perry County. It's bad. Just about every culvert in a low lying area has been damaged, and getting more information is tough with cell service issues,” Beshear said.

Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.