The response to some of the worst flooding in Kentucky’s history entered a pivotal phase on Saturday, as the search for victims accelerated over a battered stretch of central Appalachia.
The confirmed death toll stood at 25, according to Gov. Andy Beshear. But he added a grim prediction in a news conference on Saturday: “I’m worried that we’re going to be finding bodies for weeks to come,” he said.
A cold front brought in clearer weather to flood-stricken areas on Saturday, giving rescue personnel one obstacle fewer to contend with as they worked to pluck more residents off rooftops. More than 600 people have been rescued by aircraft by National Guard troops from Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia, Mr. Beshear said. He added that the Kentucky State Police and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources had assisted in the rescues of more than 700 people by boat.
But rescue efforts continue to be impeded by rugged hills and valleys that remain hard to reach. And with rain in the forecast for Sunday and Monday, officials felt urgency to make more progress before water levels had a chance to rise again.
On Saturday, the governor announced that 14 counties and at least three cities had declared a state of emergency.
Plenty of other challenges remained. One was that some Kentucky communities were either without electricity or cut off from cellphone service. Mr. Beshear said on Saturday that 18,000 households were without power. The outages made it difficult for state leaders to accurately estimate the number of missing people.
The flooding also disrupted water systems across the region, a concern as Kentucky residents faced the possibility of another heat wave next week. Over 25,000 houses and businesses were without water on Saturday, the governor said, adding that nearly 30,000 more had service but had been advised to boil their water.
The weather that led to the flooding was part of the same system that caused record-breaking rain and massive flash flooding in St. Louis earlier in the week. Although linking climate change to a single flood event requires extensive scientific analysis, human-caused global warming is already producing heavier rainfall in many storms.
The rains in Kentucky began walloping the state late on 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 by helicopter. And by Friday night, the confirmed death toll had climbed to 25, with many others still missing. Among the dead so far are four children from one family who clung to a tree, and to one another, amid floodwaters after escaping from a mobile home. (Officials initially reported six children among the dead, but on Saturday the governor said two of those six victims were, in fact, adults.)
The parents of those four children, ages 2 to 8, were rescued hours later by a man in a kayak who had been looking for stranded neighbors. 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 remain trapped by floods or who have taken refuge from them in churches and other makeshift shelters.
Joe Arvin, a private chef who has appeared on nationally televised cooking competitions, worked into the early hours of Saturday morning to smoke 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, 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, after getting a little sleep, 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.”