HINDMAN, Ky. (AP) – For days, a search-and-rescue team led by Phillip Dix has combed debris-clogged creekbanks looking for survivors in flood-ravaged eastern Kentucky. His crew is used to the stifling heat and humidity but is laboring under the grind of 12-hour days spent pulling people from danger.
The scope of the devastation and the conversations with people who lost everything keeps the rescuers going, said Dix, who leads the Memphis, Tennessee-based team.
“It’s a job to us, but talking to the local people, that kind of brings it down to the human level, which our guys have to deal with,” Dix said Wednesday. “You can’t just turn that switch off when you’re talking to someone who’s lost everything they had.”
Nearly a week since floodwaters consumed parts of Appalachia, rescue missions were winding down while supplies continued pouring into what looms as a massive relief effort for people whose homes were destroyed. Some escaped the fast-rising waters with only the clothes on their backs.
The first round of expenditures from a relief fund opened by Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear were being distributed Wednesday. The money will pay the funeral expenses of flood victims.
“The least we can do is grieve together,” the governor said during a briefing Wednesday. “And seven days out, these funerals are about to start.”
The statewide death toll remains at 37, Beshear said.
Meanwhile, temperatures were soaring Wednesday as people continued shoveling out from the wreckage. The rising heat and humidity meant heat index values near 100 by midday, a steam bath that will continue through Thursday evening, the National Weather Service said.
“The guys are tired,” Dix said from Knott County, where his crew resumed their mission on foot and boats. “So you’ve got to watch them, make sure they’re hydrated more than usual.”
Dix’s team rescued 16 people during one two-day stretch, he said. The rescued had no cell service, no electricity, no way to get through the high water and some were running short of food. The team reunited families, but also found two bodies in creeks strewn with debris and downed trees.
“The area that we were in, the houses were just gone,” Dix said. “These people that have lost everything they’ve got, they still make it a point to thank us for being up here.”
This week’s weather added to the hardships in Knott County, where Kirsten Gomez’s husband and cousin were gutting their doublewide trailer of drywall, flooring and cabinets ruined by floodwaters from nearby Troublesome Creek.
“It is so miserable. The humidity is so high, it takes your breath,” Gomez said Tuesday. “Your clothes stick to you. Your hair sticks to you. This mud is caked on you. … But I’m just blessed that we don’t have rain anymore.”
Cooling centers were opened after forecasters warned of the risk of heat-related illnesses in an advisory issued for the flood-ravaged area.
More than 1,300 people have been rescued, and crews were still trying to reach some people who remain cut off by floods or mudslides. About 5,000 customers still lacked electricity in eastern Kentucky, the governor said. Emergency shelters and area state parks housed hundreds of residents who had homes destroyed or damaged.
More than 400 National Guardsmen have been deployed across the disaster area, delivering water and other relief. Guard soldiers have distributed more than 2,400 cases of water. Beshear, who has made multiple trips to the region, said water stations are set up every few miles along roadways.
“Our goal is to provide so much water they (local officials) say ‘stop sending us water,’” he said.
Infrastructure also took a pounding from the floodwaters. Water systems sustained heavy damage, and some roads and bridges were “eaten away” by floodwaters, the governor said.
“It’s going to take significant time and significant dollars to restore what was destroyed,” he said.
Volunteers across the devastated region are serving up meals. Beshear said it’s a time for people to lean on each other, and urged them to seek help in dealing with the trauma.
“Remember, it’s OK not to be OK,” the Democratic governor said. “I don’t think our brains or hearts are designed to deal with trauma and loss at this level.”
In describing the magnitude of the losses, Beshear said it “takes your breath away.” Many people are left with “absolutely nothing,” with “every single possession wiped out,” he said.
“Imagine scratching and clawing for 10, 15 years to be able to have something you call a home,” the governor said. “But it’s not insured and it’s wiped out, as is every other thing that you own.
“Repairing these lives is going to be challenging, but we’re up for it,” he added.
President Joe Biden declared a federal disaster to direct relief money to counties flooded after 8 to 10 1/2 inches (20 to 27 centimeters) of rain fell in just 48 hours last week in the Appalachian mountain region.
The historic flooding also hit areas just across the state line in Virginia and West Virginia.