Marie Roberts Elementary School
Lost Creek, Kentucky
1:00 P.M. EDT
GOVERNOR BESHEAR: All right. We are honored and grateful to have the President and First Lady of the United States here in Eastern Kentucky today in Breathitt County, at a place where it serves as a beacon of hope in times of darkness, and those are our schools, which, all across the flooded regions, have served as places where people can come and get water, get food, get a hug, get what they need, and know that they are supported.
This is the most devastating and deadly flooding event, certainly in my lifetime, unlike anything we have ever seen. Right now, we’re confirming 37 lost Kentuckians, children of God, that will be really missed in their communities. And we think soon we’ll be adding one more, as we lost a young man who had been helping in the flood recovery.
We have two missing persons we are still trying to find, both from this county. We pray that we will find them. Thus far, everybody we have found and accounted for that were on that list.
We’re grateful for the President for a number of things. First, one of the fastest disaster declarations we’ve ever seen. The congressman and I were talking — it might be the fastest we’ve ever seen.
Individual assistance granted, again, faster than we’ve ever experienced — and we’ve had to ask for it a lot recently — and more counties than many of us thought might qualify.
Recently, we got something that we only saw in the tornadoes for the first time: agreement to cover 100 percent of certain costs — we call them category A and B. It’s really search and rescue and debris removal for a 30-day period, which is going to be a huge assistance to the counties and to the cities that are involved.
We have unprecedented resources at the moment to help our people — from FEMA centers and also with them out on the ground, to everything that the state and our counties and cities can offer, trying to get them in one place.
Between the Red Cross and state parks, we’ve got about 500-plus displaced people we’re taking care of. But as our folks from the region, like John Hunt, could tell you, thousands of more staying with friends and relatives.
We are out of the primary emergency phase, but it’s going to take us some time to stabilize people with needs for housing. And thankfully, we have over a hundred travel trailers on site, faster than we ever anticipated — many from the storms that we had, the tornadoes, in December.
I want to say a quick thank you to our first responders. Our National Guard — along with Kentucky State Police, West Virginia and Tennessee National Guard — airlifted out over 1,300 people. Our Kentucky State Police, Lexington Fire, and others with their boat rescues — we know it’s 700-plus. Those are 2,000 of our people that wouldn’t be with us here today but for their incredible work. So, for all of them, we are so thankful.
Other folks have moved Heaven and Earth to get where we are — what — about nine days from when this hit. We got power to everybody but about 200 homes, and that is incredible. Water to more people than we ever thought was possible in this period of time. Cellphone service up — we even have cellphone service and Internet at a state park at Buckhorn that I don’t think has ever had cellphone service — (laughter) — and Internet.
Today is beautiful, but the weather has not helped us out. It’s either been raining or altogether too hot. But we know that the world has come to our aid with more donations and more dollars than we’ve ever seen. One message is: The donations we need now are dollars. We are overwhelmed with clothes and water and the rest. There are a lot of good charities out there, including our team, Eastern Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund, the Red Cross, and others. What we need now are the dollars for the medium-term and the long-term rebuilding.
With that, let me turn it over to a President that, when he called me, said, “Whatever you need.” And I will tell him that I said, “Thank you, Mr. President. I need these three things.” (Laughter.) One of them included individual assistance, and I was asking for it the day after, and it came through.
We’re really grateful to have you here. To us, in this response, there is no red or blue, R or D; there is just Team Kentucky. And thank you for being there for us.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Look, as you all know, we’ve suffered, as a consequence of climate change, a significant number of weather catastrophes around the nation just in the year and a half I’ve been President. I’ve flown over thousands of acres of fire — forest that’s burning. More forest burned down in the west than the entire state of New Jersey, from New York all the way down the Delmarva Peninsula.
And I’ll tell you one of the things I’ve learned. Number one, you better have somebody who really knows how to run FEMA. I mean that sincerely. And I do. She’s been incredible. You really have been incredible. But also, knowing that the outfit asking for the help is going to know what to do with it makes a big difference. We want to help everybody — every American the same way, but some outfits who ask for help — some Democrat, Republican, it doesn’t matter — some folks don’t know what to do with it as quickly as they think they can use it.
And so one of the reasons why — and I know Andy is — probably I’m more of a pain in the neck because when the flooding started, I called him first because I — I was down here at the time when Mayfield and Dawson Springs — it was before Christmas. And I watched. It was a totally different thing — tornadoes.
But I watched how the state responded. And as — as the Dean knows, they get along down here. Everybody gets — when there’s trouble, everybody jumps in. And I mean that’s all the way from, you know, Mitch McConnell and I — we do battle all the time on issues. But when it came — when it comes to Kentucky, when it comes to these issues, it’s all one team. And I really mean it. And it really matters.
And as I was saying, as I flew down here in the helicopter, I have had the ca- — occasion — I said five; I think it’s four occasions to fly from the most western point of the state to the most eastern point. It’s a magnificent state. As we’re flying down here, you look at a how — how beautiful it is. I mean, I really mean it.
And — and you think of how incredibly heartbreaking it is that people, as you look at those creeks and streams that are — that are now running brown, and you see — from the helicopter, you see automobiles — everything from buses, to automobiles, to homes, you know, literally in the middle of the water on the side of the road — and you think to yourself, “What in God’s name happened to those — those…” — was it 37 now? Thirty —
GOVERNOR BESHEAR: It will be 38.
THE PRESIDENT: Thirty-eight people who are dead. You know, they — and you hear about the grandmother and granddaughter who climbed 16 hours to get out of the way and ended up — ended up in trouble. And that — you see the pictures of those four beautiful children on television, and you think, “My God, what a — what a devastating thing to be a parent and be in that circumstance.”
And, you know — you know, and you see a father who sacrificed his own life to save an injured driver. I mean, the things people do when there’s really a crisis really matter.
And Jill and I are grateful for the first responders and the National Guard for what you do. You know, I think first responders, at least up until not too long ago, were kind of taken for granted around the country. Not now, after COVID and so many other things.
I mean — and, you know, my — back in my home state, the Delmarva Peninsula area, you know, the first responders are — they’re the lifesavers. They’ve — and, you know, they’re volunteer fire companies and fire companies. And these guys — you know, there’s that old saying, you know, “God made man, and then he made a few firefighters.” You know, who the hell else runs into flames?
But all kidding aside, think of all the things they’ve done, and the National Guard stepping up — everything they’ve been asked to do.
And so, you know, flying home to home, county to county, pushing through the chaos and exhaustion, trying to save every single life you can is — it’s kind of who you are. I’ve gotten to see you — I’ve gotten to see you pretty up close and personal.
And when I got elected, I promised to be — and it’s not hyperbole — the President to all Americans. There’s no — there really is no, you know, red and blue when it comes to these things. People are people, and they need help.
And it’s — like I said, it’s unfortunate this is my second visit to Kentucky for a crisis — for a crisis. And, you know, what I said holds true today: It’s going to take a while to get through this, but I promise you we’re not leaving. The federal government and all its resources, we’re not leaving. As long as it takes, we’re going be here, and we are committed.
You know — and, you know, this absolute, 100 percent coverage of cost for the next few months, it matters. What people don’t realize: All those piles of debris and everything else, it takes a lot of time and a lot of money to get that out of the way. And so that’s why we did the expedited major disaster declaration. It provides temporary housing, home repairs, property loss for homeowners. We’ve already gotten out 10 million bucks out the door — a lot more to go — directly to flooding survivors to support their recovery.
And, on Saturday, I committed the federal government, as I said, to 100 percent of the emergency work for 30 days will be necessary for communities in Eastern Kentucky to recover and begin to rebuild. And — and so — (applause) —
We were on the ground immediately after the flooding and working closely with the Governor’s office, the search and rescue teams distributing food and water and other necessities; getting power restored, water to communities; get phones, Internet service back up; register survivors for disaster assistance, including $500 direct payment for immediate cost of everything from food, water, and prescriptions.
And FEMA’s Mobile Disaster Recovery Centers are impacting communities. Some are going door to door to see who needs help.
And, you know, one of the things I think that we all forget: In moments of crisis, not everybody is prepared to know how to respond, to know where to go, to know what to do. And not everybody is in the same circumstance. And so, if you’re a survivor and you need — and you have any cell service, go to: 1-800-621-3362. 1-800-621-333- — excuse me — 1-800-621-3362 directly. And you can find out what you — where you have to go to get what you need.
Additionally, the U.S. Corps of Engineers has deployed experts to remediate hazardous materials from wastewater systems and restore critical roads and bridges. I don’t know whether you have a calculation yet of how many roads and bridges you’re going to need to be rebuilt and replaced, but we’re going to get it done.
And joining us today is Rachel Chambers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture who is working to make sure we get rural communities who can easily access a range of federal — federal assistance as well.
I also want to thank Gail McGovern, president of the American Red Cross, who — the Red Cross is always there. Always there. No — no, it really is.
I remember, as a kid, learning about the Red Cross from an uncle who was in World War Two. “The Red Cross is always there” was the phrase.
Well, in every disaster I’ve seen since I’ve been President, you’re always there.
The bottom line is the people of Kentucky have made it clear to your Governor and members of Congress — Hal Rogers, Mitch McConnell, and others — that anything they want, know these guys are going to fight like hell to get it for you. And I promise you, if it’s legal, we’ll do it. (Laughter.) We’ll do it. If it’s not legal, we’ll figure out how to change the law. (Laughter.)
No, but all kidding aside, there’s a lot we have to do. People need some navigators, people who don’t — who are devastated already, lost a home, trying to figure out, “Who do I call? What do I do? How do I do it?” They need people helping them navigate through this. We’re going to do that too.
So, Gov, thank you for everything you’re doing. And like I said, you’re stuck with us. We’re here until it’s over.
GOVERNOR BESHEAR: Thank you, Mr. President.
Next, we’ll hear from a Congressman who has served this region probably for about as long as about I’ve been alive. (Laughter.) But it’s the — it’s not only the dean of Congress, but he is always fighting for Eastern Kentucky. Regardless of the administration, he is steadfast in supporting Kentuckians and Kentucky families. For that, I am grateful. Our working relationship has been wonderful, whether it is attracting new jobs or, in this instance, being there for our people.
REPRESENTATIVE ROGERS: Thank you, Governor. That was nice words (inaudible). And, Mr. President, we are so —
THE PRESIDENT: You want this mic, boss?
REPRESENTATIVE ROGERS: Yes. Does it work?
Mr. President, we are thrilled that you’re here.
I’ll tell this — I think it’s the truth. (Laughter.) If not, we’ll make it so. This storm occurred at 3:00 p- — a.m. — I think it was a Sunday. And I got the Kentucky delegation together — federal delegation — and we signed a letter to you requesting emergency declaration. And before that day was out, the declaration was signed, which I think is a record time, the same day as the storm. And you’ve been on the spot all the way through.
And, of course, the Governor has been terrific —
GOVERNOR BESHEAR: Thank you.
REPRESENTATIVE ROGERS: — in his leadership, pulling the state’s assets together with federal help. Thank goodness for FEMA and others.
But the volunteers have been great. And the spirit of the people of East Kentucky shines through.
I’m reminded of the Scripture that says: “We are oppressed, but not crushed; persecuted, not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”
So the people of this region are doing yeoman’s work in cleaning up, reorganizing their lives, all the while being helped by angels, like in this room, who are helping them get back to life.
And, Mr. President, you are our number-one booster. And we thank you for being here.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. (Applause.)
By the way, Dean, I didn’t tell you: I had a little prejudiced view of Kentucky. The best thing that ever happened to my family is a girl from Owensboro decided to marry my brother Jim. (Laughter.) And she bleeds blue. She went to the University of Kentucky; that’s the only part I get a little tired of sometimes — hearing about it. (Laughter.)
But, anyway —
GOVERNOR BESHEAR: I think next we’re going to hear from somebody I’ve become on a — on a first-name basis with, and that’s FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell. I will tell you that two people at this table gave me their personal cellphones some months ago. In the first three, three and a half hours, I called both Gail McGovern and Administrator Criswell. And Administrator Criswell had been on a plane. She was landing in Tennessee —
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Tennessee.
GOVERNOR BESHEAR: Immediately called back upon landing. And because of where she was and who she was talking to, the Tennessee National Guard came to our aid, bringing their helicopters with hoist capabilities within a matter of hours, making hundreds of saves.
Just her being there and picking up the phone meant that there are Kentuckians with us today that would otherwise not be.
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Does this mic work?
THE PRESIDENT: Yeah.
ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: It seems like it does.
You know, I just — I’d like to start by first sharing my gratitude, Mr. President, to you and the First Lady for being here today and standing strong with the Commonwealth of Kentucky. It really means a lot to everybody here and my team that’s here supporting.
And on behalf of FEMA, Governor, for you and the First Lady of Kentucky, your Emergency Management Office and all of the local emergency management officials: I just want to express my thank you to you for your outstanding leadership that you have shown over the last several really hard days.
And I think you’ve heard this already, but I always like to recognize all of those amazing first responders that are out there supporting Kentuckians, many of them who have had personal loss and personal tragedy throughout this and the fact that they continue to put their lives ahead of what their needs are to make sure that they’re helping those that are in the greatest need.
And finally, just to let you know that the nation stands behind you right now, and it’s here to support Kentucky with what their needs are.
It’s been a really challenging situation to watch unfold. It’s been heartbreaking and hard to really put in words the stories that we continue to hear.
And I just want to say that we commit to being here with you on your road to recovery and, as Mr. President has said, for as long as you need us here. I would even add to that: We were still here for the tornadoes that happened just before Christmas of last year. And because we had a presence here, our team was able to mobilize very quickly to begin providing some coordination efforts in bringing in resources that could help with the flooding that was going on.
So I’ll give you a — just a quick update of what we’re doing here on the ground. So far, we have deployed over 700 FEMA personnel to assist with the response and the recovery efforts that are ongoing. Our Urban Search & Rescue Teams — they will remain in the area, on standby, until you tell me that you don’t want them here anymore. They will be here to support you.
To support critical needs, we’ve delivered more than 134,000 meals to date and 917,000 liters of water to the impacted communities. We will bring in more if you need more.
And then finally, FEMA has been able to provide over 800 Kentuckians so far across the 12 designated counties, with over $13 million in disaster assistance under the major disaster declaration. We do expect this number to increase. And as I spoke with the Governor earlier today, we are calling back anybody that has been denied assistance to make sure we can talk to you about what your needs are and make sure we have a better understanding. (Applause.)
I think, as you said, Mr. President, sometimes you don’t know what to ask for, and so maybe we don’t get the form filled out right. And so we’ll continue to do that.
We’re also going to make sure that we work with the Governor’s team to help get to those isolated communities. And how do we get our teams that are in the field? We have what we call “Disaster Survivor Assistance Teams” that are walking around going door to door with iPads. But we know that there’s communities that are isolated, and so we want to make sure that we can figure out how we can get to them and get them registered if they need assistance.
We also have fixed and mobile registration centers. And so we’re going to bring in different types of resources because we understand that everybody’s situation is unique to them.
We’re also supporting non-congregate sheltering efforts. This is what you heard the Governor talk about with the RVs that we had in place from the tornadoes. This is a program that we really matured during the COVID-19 pandemic, and we have found how valuable it is during the early days of a disaster response like this.
We also have housing inspectors that are in the field doing damage assessments and working with them. And then we’ll continue to do preliminary damage assessments to see if we add on it — need to add on additional aid.
And so, in closing, I’d just say, Governor, Mr. President: Kentucky, unfortunately, is no stranger to tragedy. But you have a resilient people here, and what warms my heart is just to see how neighbors continue to help neighbors each and every day.
And we will continue to be here with you throughout your recovery. Thank you.
THE PRESIDENT: Gov, may I say something?
GOVERNOR BESHEAR: You’re the President. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: I still have to ask permission.
All kidding aside, you know, one of the things — and I think that maybe the Congressman may agree with me — that is positive has changed is: For a while — the years that I’ve been in the Senate for a long time, since the ‘70s — we’d find that when there was a disaster that hit in one section of the country, there wasn’t an overwhelming desire to vote to help that section of the country if you weren’t from that section of country.
For example, we’d find that when we have — always have farming disasters in the Midwest, and everybody in the East would, you know, saddle up and pay for it. If we have a major flood, a hurricane along the East Coast — my state is three feet above sea level — people will say, “What in the hell? Well, why do I have a responsibility to do that?” Not a joke.
Remember, Sandy and other storms, that there was a reluctance in the part of the rest of the members of the House and Senate to vote for it.
But what — the bad news — I was saying to the Gov that my mother had an expression: “Everything bad, something good will come if you look hard enough for it.”
I think what’s happening here is we’re beginning to realize this is one country. It’s a federal system, but it’s one country.
And the fact that you’re in Tennessee and the National Guard comes with lift helicopters across the way —
GOVERNOR BESHEAR: And West Virginia.
THE PRESIDENT: — to help out — and West Virginia the same way.
It’s happening all across the country; happening out West too.
The number of firefighters — I mean, the thousands of firefighters, many of whom have lost their lives fighting fires in other states.
And so I just think it’s — I think if there’s one good thing that’s come from this is we realized that, you know, this is an American problem, not just a problem for an individual state. (Inaudible.) (Microphone off.)
GOVERNOR BESHEAR: Thank you, Administrator. And thank you to the federal government’s commitment to that. Back in the housing challenge that’s going to be posed by this natural disaster is going to be one unlike any we have seen before. But I will say FEMA, thus far, is doing things that it’s never done before. And I think — the President just committed — we continue to do things that —
THE PRESIDENT: We got to try. And 35,000 bucks is not going to be enough for people who don’t have any insurance at all and have a modest home to begin with.
GOVERNOR BESHEAR: We’ll turn it over now to Colonel Jeremy Slinker. He is the head of emergency management in Kentucky.
And I — I got to say, he and his team have been doing an incredible job also getting things done that we’ve never seen before. We’re now having, I think, every healthcare operator up and running, having to deliver water to so many of them.
Colonel Slinker, you’re doing a great job.
COLONEL SLINKER: Thank you, Governor. I appreciate that.
Mr. President, thanks for the opportunity.
You know, my comments would be very similar to every- — what everyone has already said, which just substantiates how true they are. I mean, it’s been truly teamwork.
And you just made the comment that I was going to mention: We have Team Kentucky, but I can’t tell you how many other states have reached out to me offering assistance. And we have other states in our EOC and also in the impacted areas supporting our local emergency management offices there as well.
So, this truly is Team United States. And I can’t express enough the appreciation for all the support that’s coming.
You know, what we owe — the search-and-rescue efforts have been described of how monumental they were. So, now, what’s up to myself and my colleagues in FEMA and Ms. Gracia Szczech — the Administrator — is that we give those same efforts in the recovery, because it’s equally as important.
We did the emergency work. Now, it’s going to take that –just as much efforts to help people and save their lives in the recovery operation as well. And you have that commitment from Kentucky Emergency Management. And I speak, I think, for our local emergency management directors, like Director Friley that’s here at the table.
As well, some of the challenges we’re running into: A lot of these residences are cut off because they have residential bridges. And once that bridge is gone, it may be challenging to get out. But we’re throwing every resource we have at it. FEMA is supporting us on those.
And we’re — we just completed an objective: They’re doing wellness checks on all those people that are across those bridges, and we’re identifying what their needs are. And then we’re being as simple as: If they need a bottle of water, they also need — every other service that’s out there to offer needs to be delivered across that creek to them as well. And we’re going to work together. And I’ve had that commitment, as well, from my colleagues at FEMA to get that done.
And as mentioned, the sheltering mission: People need places to stay, and we’re scouring the area to locate all areas that can house our survivors — as well as at all of these Disaster Recovery Centers, as they talk to a federal resource, if they look to the right or left, they’re going to find a state resource or a local resource. Whatever it is, it’s a one-stop shop that we’re setting up so they don’t have to drive multiple places or try to find them or locate them.
And then you mentioned as well, your experience in these are well noted: Debris cleanup is coming, and we are — they’re having meetings as we speak about the waterway debris cleanup, which is going to be very challenging. And we’ll be rolling that out and getting it started very soon.
But ultimately, I’ll close with: You know, I take it personal. I have a lot of friends and colleagues in this area. All the emergency management directors that we speak with regularly, we’ve stood up a daily call with the county officials that — the ones to my left and across the table from you are on there every day — where we give out information but not only do we listen to you and when — and we want them to give us every need they have, and we will respond in every way we can.
So that’s our commitment. There’ll be no rock left unturned. And if there’s a resource out there, we’ll ask for it. And we appreciate, so far, all the answers have been, “Yes.”
GOVERNOR BESHEAR: Thank you. I’ll pause a moment as the press departs. But if I can, to you: Thank you for telling our story. It’s important that the world sees what’s happened here, the tough times people are going through. Thank you for telling our story.
1:26 P.M. EDT