CANEYVILLE, Ky. — Thousands of National Guard troops swinging chainsaws cut their way into remote communities Sunday to reach residents stranded by a deadly ice storm, freeing some to get out of their driveways for the first time in nearly a week.
The soldiers went door-to-door handing out chili and beef stew rations to people cooped up in their powerless homes as authorities ratcheted up the relief effort for what Gov. Steve Beshear called the biggest natural disaster ever to hit the state.
"It's going to be a long haul for us," Gov. Steve Beshear said Sunday as he toured hard-hit areas in and around Elizabethtown. "We've thrown everything we have at it. We're going to continue to do that until everyone is back in their homes and back on their feet."
The sight of Humvees rolling up one street in rural Grayson County, about 90 miles southwest of Louisville, sent children bouncing off the walls inside the generator-powered house where Bryan Bowling and 18 other people have been hunkering down by a fireplace.
"The kids were looking out the windows and yelling, 'Yay! We're saved!'" said Bowling, 30, who has a 7-year-old and a 4-year-old.
"It's just good to know that people care."
Kentucky was hit hardest by the ice storm that paralyzed wide areas from the Ozarks through Appalachia early last week. Officials blamed or suspected the storm in more than 40 deaths across nine states, most from hypothermia, traffic accidents or carbon monoxide poisoning from improperly installed generators or charcoal grills used indoors.
At its height, the storm knocked out power to 1.3 million customers from the Southern Plains to the East Coast, more than 700,000 of them in Kentucky, a state record. By Sunday, the figure had dropped to nearly half that across Kentucky, with scattered outages in other states.
By Sunday night, 93 of Kentucky's 120 counties along with 71 cities had declared states of emergencies, according to Monica French, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management. She said officials attributed 16 deaths in Kentucky to the storm.
The 4,600 soldiers Beshear ordered on duty, including his entire Army National Guard, swept through the state distributing food and water, removing fallen trees, providing security and checking houses in hard-to-reach areas. They brought food to Henry Mudd, among others, who said he has had nine family members staying in his powerless apartment, usually home to just three.
"It ain't been easy," said Mudd, a saw mill operator.
"The biggest thing we need is electricity," Mudd said Sunday, one day after he finally cut through the fallen trees and branches that blocked his road and made it to the store, only to discover there wasn't a battery to be found. "But we're managing with wood heat. We're staying warm."
The troops, utility workers and good-natured civilians took advantage of temperatures near 50 across much of the region to make headway on repairs. And while authorities said some people might not get electricity for weeks, residents showed plenty of resilience.
In the town of Clinton, tucked in the tip of western Kentucky, Spc. Michael Hagan had yet to find a person in need of help after four hours of searching, but he said he'd keep knocking on doors.
"I told my sergeant if I have to walk one more hill, my feet are going to fall off," said the 23-year-old guardsman, who returned from 18 months in Iraq in December. "But it's good to be sure people are all right."
One of those who answered the door was Dorothy Potter, 80, who moved to Clinton from Biloxi, Miss., last spring. There, she said she lost her power for 30 days after Hurricane Katrina. It was more a change of scenery than living in a hurricane zone that caused her to leave, she said.
"But still, I move here, and I go through this," she said.
Across Kentucky, churches canceled services or whittled schedules to just one service for the day. At New Horizon Baptist Church in Glendale, volunteers from New Haven Baptist Church in Albany, La., passed out free kerosene, batteries, bottled water and other assorted goods to local residents, returning a favor from 2005.
"Our church sent a truckload down when Katrina hit," said Dan Brian, New Horizon's associate pastor, "and they heard we had trouble and here they came.
Associated Press writers Janet Cappiello Blake in Louisville, Ky., and John Moreno Gonzales in Clinton, Ky., and Jeffrey McMurray in Elizabethtown, Ky., contributed to this report.