Marion, Ky. — In some parts of rural Kentucky, they’re getting water the old-fashioned way — with pails from a creek. There’s not room for one more sleeping bag on the shelter floor. The creative are flushing their toilets with melted snow.
At least 42 people have died, including 11 in Kentucky, and conditions are worsening in many places days after an ice storm knocked out power to 1.3 million customers from the Plains to the East Coast. About a million people were still without electricity Friday, and with no hope that the lights will come back on soon, small communities are frantically struggling to help their residents.
One county put it bluntly: It can’t.
“We’re asking people to pack a suitcase and head south and find a motel if they have the means, because we can’t service everybody in our shelter,” said Crittenden County Judge-Executive Fred Brown, who oversees about 9,000 people, many of whom are sleeping in the town’s elementary school.
Local officials were growing angry with what they said was a lack of help from the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In Grayson County, about 80 miles southwest of Louisville, Emergency Management Director Randell Smith said the 25 National Guardsmen who have responded have no chain saws to clear fallen trees.
“We’ve got people out in some areas we haven’t even visited yet,” Smith said. “We don’t even know that they’re alive.”
Smith said FEMA has been a no-show so far.
“I’m not saying we can’t handle it; we’ll handle it,” Smith said. “But it would have made life a lot easier” if FEMA had reached the county sooner, he said.
FEMA spokeswoman Mary Hudak said some FEMA personnel already are in Kentucky working in the state’s emergency operations center and that more will be arriving in coming days.
Hudak said FEMA also has shipped to 50 to 100 generators to the state to supply electricity to facilities like hospitals, nursing homes, and water treatment plants.
Hudak said travel is still dangerous in some areas and communications are limited.
“We have plenty of folks ready to go, but there are some limitations with roads closed and icy conditions,” she said.
From Missouri to Ohio, thousands were bunked down in shelters, waiting for the power to return. Others are trying to tough out the power outage at home, using any means they can to get basics like drinking water, heat and food.
Lori Clarke was stuck at home in the western Kentucky town of Marion with trees blocking the road out. She trudged more than half a mile through snow and ice carrying 5-gallon buckets to bring drinking water for her horses and dogs and to flush her toilet.
“When you live out in the country, you just shift into survival mode,” she said.
Meanwhile, the death toll was rising: Since the storm began Monday, the weather is suspected in at least 11 deaths in Kentucky, nine more in Arkansas, six each in Texas and Missouri, three in Virginia, two each in Oklahoma, Indiana and West Virginia and one in Ohio.
Most of the deaths are blamed on hypothermia, traffic accidents and carbon monoxide poisoning from generators.