From the air and on the ground, President Joe Biden saw firsthand Monday what he described as “incredibly heartbreaking” devastation unleashed by flash flooding that killed at least 37 people in southeastern Kentucky and left a path of destruction across several counties.
A little more than a week after heavy storms ravaged the mountainous region in the early morning darkness, evidence of the catastrophic damage and the recovery effort was visible as Biden’s motorcade wound along Lost Creek in Breathitt County, about an hour and a half southeast of Lexington.
Building materials, clothing and other flood detritus were strewn along the creek’s banks. A plastic laundry basket was lodged high in a tree. A prefabricated home sat twisted and lifted off the ground along its axis. A large red “X” was taped on its side.
Biden said he could see cars, buses and homes washed into streams as his helicopter flew over the area.
“You think to yourself, what in God’s name happened?” He said.
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Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, who accompanied Biden and first lady Jill Biden, described the flooding as “unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”.
Hundreds of people were displaced from their homes by the flooding and mudslides, and others remain stranded without water, electricity or other critical supplies. The National Guard airlifted more than 1,300 people out of the flooded areas, while state police and other agencies rescued thousands of others, Beshear said.
Biden has declared 13 counties as federal disaster areas.
At one stop, the Bidens surveyed damage caused when a school bus, carried by floodwaters, crashed into a partially collapsed building.
Biden received a briefing from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state officials at Marie Roberts-Caney Elementary School in Lost Creek. Col. Jeremy Slinker, Kentucky’s emergency management director, noted that many people have been cut off because bridges were washed out. All wellness checks have been completed, he said.
Biden promised that federal and state resources would be available to help assist the recovery “as long as it takes.”.
“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.”.
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After the briefing, Biden’s motorcade stopped at a bridge over a muddy, swollen creek. Down a dirt and gravel road, the Bidens spoke with members of a family whose home was heavily damaged by the floodwaters. Dining chairs, a refrigerator and a tub – many of them caked with mud – were laid out beside the curb.
Across the road, a family of six waited in the outline of the foundation of what had been their home. The house was carried hundreds of feet away and deposited at a nearby gas station.
Biden said he talked to a man whose trailer was washed away. “When I started talking about what we could do, he said, ‘Well, you know, we Kentuckians don’t want to ask for too much. We’re used to having neighbors help us out,'” Biden said.
“Everybody has an obligation to help,” Biden said.
The trip is Biden’s second to Kentucky to survey damage caused by a natural disaster since he took office. In December, he visited the western part of the state after tornadoes tore through the area, killing 80 people.
Michael Collins covers the White House. Follow him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.