LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Gov. Andy Beshear said Tuesday he will be relentless in pushing for federal assistance in flood-ravaged eastern Kentucky, insisting that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has “to get it right” by broadly supporting residents trying to rebuild their lives.
A day after President Joe Biden said the nation has an obligation to help all its people as he visited the stricken Appalachian region, Kentucky's Democratic governor said the devastation is so extensive that it will be one of the most difficult rebuilding efforts the country has seen.
“I believe that this is the natural disaster where we are going to see, is FEMA going to get it right?” Beshear said Tuesday at a news conference. “Or is it going to be an example where people are excited when they come in but even more deflated when they leave?”
Beshear said the federal government has said “yes to just about every major program that we’ve asked for,” but said FEMA should do more to help more residents recover.
“This is what FEMA’s supposed to be there for,” the governor said. “For folks that are wiped out, for folks that without it can’t get back on their feet.”
As the cleanup of staggering amounts of debris continued, eastern Kentucky braced for the potential for heavy rainfall that could unleash more flash flooding. A flood watch was in effect for the region until Wednesday evening, the National Weather Service said.
“The next two days are of significant concern," Beshear said. "Folks have been through too much.”
At least 37 people have died since last month’s deluge, which dropped 8 to 10-1/2 inches of rain in only 48 hours. Authorities expect to add at least one other death to the total, the governor said.
More than 500 people left homeless by the disaster are staying in emergency shelters or at state parks, Beshear said. Power outages were down to about 370 customers, while about 6,600 service connections remained without water, he said.
Debris removal efforts are moving forward, Beshear said. He added: “Once we get all of the private contractors up and running, people are going to see a huge difference very quickly.”
Once the latest storms have passed, officials hope to move from “emergency mode to stabilization mode,” the governor said. That means finding people temporary lodging where they “can stretch out a little bit” and get the long-term assistance they need to rebuild, he said.
Republican U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul visited flood-affected areas in their home state Tuesday. Paul called for the use of unspent COVID-19 relief funds to help rebuild disaster-stricken areas.
McConnell said he hopes “red-tape problems” don't surface in getting relief to residents.
“I think it's going to require assistance beyond what's normally available,” McConnell said. “There are plenty of funds around that are not normally there as a result of the COVID response. Much of that money is still available. And if it requires any reprogramming permission, I'm sure that will be granted.”
On his visit Monday, Biden said he would do whatever was necessary to help.
"I promise you, if it’s legal, we’ll do it,” he said. “And if it’s not legal, we’ll figure out how to change the law.”
The governor said at his statehouse briefing Tuesday that he's seeing encouraging signs in the FEMA response in Appalachia.
“And every time we see one of those, that’s a good thing," he said. “That’s being willing to open up people’s claims again at the mobile registration site. And they’ve told us that everybody denied is going to get a call from their national office.
“The next thing we’ve got to see, is them saying ‘yes’ in instances where they may have said ‘no’ in the past, provided that they have the statutory or regulatory authority to do so,” Beshear said.
The governor is also leading the state’s recovery from tornadoes that devastated several towns in western Kentucky last December.
The situation in eastern Kentucky is difficult, he said, in part because of the limited amount of flat land in the region as people look for places to rebuild.
State leaders, meanwhile, are working on a relief package for eastern Kentucky — as they did for tornado-stricken western Kentucky. Beshear left no doubt Tuesday that he will call state lawmakers into a special session, likely within the next month, to take up the assistance proposal.
The package still being crafted is likely to include aid to stricken cities and counties -- which would benefit individuals as well, the governor said.
‘"When a family would say ‘what does that mean for me?' It means your water bill is not going to go up at a time when you’re already struggling because of the massive amounts of dollars it’s going to take to rebuild that water system," he said. “It means that we can get your kids’ school rebuilt and up and running faster. And if we do it right, without raising your property tax.”