The response to some of the worst flooding in Kentucky’s history was entering a pivotal phase on Saturday morning, with the confirmed death toll at 25 and the search for victims poised to accelerate over a battered stretch of central Appalachia.
A cold front is expected to bring clearer weather to flood-stricken areas on Saturday, giving rescue personnel one less obstacle to contend with as they work to pluck more residents off rooftops. Nearly 300 people have been rescued in Kentucky so far, about 100 of them by aircraft, Gov. Andy Beshear told reporters on Friday.
But state officials expect the death toll to keep growing, possibly for weeks, as rescue efforts continue across rugged hills and valleys that remain hard to reach. And with rain in the forecast for Sunday, they feel urgency to make more progress before water levels have a chance to rise again.
“There’s still a lot of people out there — still a lot of people unaccounted for,” Mr. Beshear said on Friday, as President Biden approved a disaster declaration for the state. “We’re going to do our best to find them all.”
Plenty of challenges remain. One is that some Kentucky communities are either without electricity or cut off from cellphone service. According to poweroutage.us, a website that tracks power interruptions, more than 17,000 households across the state were without power as of 4 a.m. Saturday.
Further flooding is also possible. Some Kentucky creeks and rivers were still rising on Friday, and even as a flood warning in a pocket of eastern Kentucky with more than 46,000 residents expired at 10 p.m., a similar number of residents in that part of the state were under flood warnings or advisories through at least Saturday afternoon.
(Linking climate change to a single flood event requires extensive scientific analysis, but the phenomenon is already causing heavier rainfall in many storms. Researchers also expect that, as the climate warms, flash floods will become “flashier”: shorter in timing, greater in magnitude.)
Heavy rains began walloping Kentucky late Wednesday, washing out roads and leaving hundreds of homes underwater. In the city of Whitesburg, water engulfed the buildings of Appalshop, a revered arts and education nonprofit that has promoted Appalachian culture for more than a half-century.
By Thursday, rescue personnel from state agencies and the National Guard were conducting a frantic search for survivors by boat and helicopter. But by Friday night, the confirmed death toll had climbed to 25, and many others were still missing. Among the dead so far are four children from one family who clung to a tree, and each other, amid floodwaters after escaping from a mobile home. (Officials initially reported six children among the dead, but on Saturday morning the governor said two of those six victims were, in fact, adults.)
The parents of those children, ages 2 to 8, were rescued hours later by a man in a kayak who had been looking for stranded neighbors. Still, Brittany Trejo, a relative of the family, told The New York Times, “The rage of the water took their children out of their hands.”
One bright spot amid Kentucky’s grief and devastation has been efforts by volunteers across the state to help emergency workers find, feed and assist people who either remain trapped by floods or have taken refuge from them in churches and other makeshift shelters.
Early Saturday morning, Joe Arvin, a private chef who has appeared on nationally televised cooking competitions, was staying up late as he smoked hundreds of pounds of pork and beef at his home in Lexington, Ky. The meat would fill the 1,000 or so burritos that he planned to deliver to the hard-hit city of Hazard by noon.
Mr. Arvin said he expected 20 or 30 volunteers, including some members of the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team, to arrive at his home by 6 a.m. and start loading a convoy of pickup trucks with supplies — not only burritos, but also the diapers, paper towels and bottled water that officials in Hazard had requested. Some of the food and supplies would be delivered to stranded residents by boat.
Mr. Arvin, 51, said he had been warned that floodwaters were still high in the area and that some of the bridges between Lexington and Hazard were out. But he planned to make the two-and-a-half-hour drive anyway.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said by telephone just before he went to bed. “We’re getting there. One way or the other, we’ll be there to help our brothers.”