JACKSON, Ky. — Trapped homeowners swam to safety and others were rescued by boat as record flash flooding killed at least 16 people in eastern Kentucky and swamped entire Appalachian towns, prompting a frenzied search for survivors through some of the poorest communities in America.
The region was still flooded Friday with heavy rainfall. Authorities warned that this would increase the risk of flooding. Some waterways weren’t expected to reach their crest before Saturday.
It’s the latest in a string of catastrophic deluges that have hammered parts of the U.S. this summer, including St. Louis earlier this week and again on Friday. Climate change, scientists warn, is increasing the likelihood of weather-related disasters.
The torrent of water flowed down hillsides to Appalachian valleys. It flooded homes and businesses and threw away vehicles. Some were left stranded by the mudslides on their steep slopes.
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Supported by the National Guard, rescue teams used boats and helicopters to find the missing. However, some areas were inaccessible. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said the death toll was “going to get a lot higher.”
Rachel Patton claimed floodwaters flooded her Floyd County house so fast that Patton’s mother on oxygen had to be evacuated via a door which was suspended above the water. Patton’s voice faltered as she described their harrowing escape.
“We had to swim out and it was cold. It was over my head so it was, it was scary,” she told WCHS TV.
According to Beshear, children were the most likely victims. Rescue teams also searched the affected areas. He said that the deaths occurred in four counties of eastern Kentucky.
“There are hundreds of families that have lost everything,” Beshear said. “And many of these families didn’t have much to begin with. This makes it even worse. But we’re going to be there for them.”
The flooding left at least 33,000 utilities customers without power, spreading into southern West Virginia and western Virginia. It also affected a region that is already plagued by poverty.
Scientists have found that extreme rainfall events have increased in frequency as climate change changes weather patterns and makes the planet more hot. That’s a growing challenge to government officials during disasters, because models used by forecasters to predict storm impacts are in part based on past events and can’t keep up with increasingly devastating flash floods, hurricanes and heat waves.
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A day before the floods hit Appalachia, the National Weather Service had said Wednesday that there was a “slight to moderate risk of flash flooding” across the region for Thursday and Thursday night.
Appalachia was hit by a torrential rain two days following record rainfalls that fell in St. Louis. The storm killed at least two others and caused more than 12 inches (31 cm) to fall in certain areas. Heavy rains that fell on Yellowstone National Park mountain snow caused flooding. More than 10,000 people were evacuated and areas in Montana were ravaged by the floods. Both cases were extreme in terms of rainfall and flooding.
Beshear stated that emergency crews from Kentucky performed close to 50 rescues by air and many water rescues Thursday. More people need help.
The water was so swift that some people trapped in their homes couldn’t be immediately reached, said Floyd County Judge-Executive Robbie Williams.
Authorities said that some individuals were still missing and nearly everyone had sustained some damage in Perry County, just to the west.
“We’ve still got a lot of searching to do,” said Jerry Stacy, the emergency management director in Perry County. “We still have missing people.”
Determining the number of people unaccounted for is tough with cell service and electricity out across the disaster area, he said: “This is so widespread, it’s a challenge on even local officials to put that number together.”
Beshear reported that shelter has been sought by more than 289 people. National Guard soldiers were sent to those areas that had been most severely affected. The governor created shelters in three parks and opened an online donation portal to help victims of the extensive property damage. Beshear indicated that the president called President Joe Biden to offer his support and to warn of the lengthy restoration process. He said it could take up to a year for complete rebuilding.
Biden declared the federal disaster in order to provide relief funds to over a dozen Kentucky counties. The Federal Emergency Management Agency also appointed an official to oversee the recovery. Beshear was joined by Deanne Criswell, FEMA Administrator.
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“We’re committed to bringing whatever resources are necessary to support the life-saving efforts as well as the ongoing recovery efforts,” Criswell said.
Even the governor was unable to reach the devastation. He was originally planning to go to the area to see it on Friday, but conditions at the airport were too dangerous for him to fly. Later in the day, he was able to take a helicopter ride over the floodwaters. He tweeted that “the situation is even more devastating to see firsthand” and said it will be “a long road to recovery.”
Beshear stated that at least 28 Kentucky state roads are currently blocked by flooding and mudslides. Rescue crews also worked in Virginia and West Virginia to reach people in places where roads weren’t passable. Gov. Jim Justice declared an emergency in six West Virginia counties where flooding caused damage to trees and power outages, as well as blocked roads. Gov. Glenn Youngkin made an emergency declaration, which allowed Virginia to mobilize resources in flood-prone areas in southwest Virginia.
“With more rainfall forecasted over the next few days, we want to lean forward in providing as many resources possible to assist those affected,” Youngkin said in a statement.
According to the National Weather Service, another storm system could cause flooding in St. Louis and bring additional rain to the Appalachians on Friday. Flash flooding is still possible in some areas of the Appalachians through Friday night.
Brandon Bonds, a weather service meteorologist in Jackson, Kentucky, said some places could see more rain Friday afternoon and begin to dry out on Saturday “before things pick back up Sunday and into next week.”
Bonds reported that the most severely affected areas in eastern Kentucky saw an increase of between 8 and 10 1/4 inches (21-27 centimeters), during the 48 hour period. This was according to Bonds. Martin County received 3 inches (7.6 cm) more rainfall overnight. This led to the flood warning.
At least 2 records were broken by the North Fork of Kentucky River. The river gauge measured 20.9 feet (6.4 meters) in Whitesburg. This is more than six feet (1.8 metres) above the previous record. Bonds reported that the river reached its record height of 43.47 feet (13.3 meters) in Jackson.
In Whitesburg, Kentucky, floodwaters seeped into Appalshop, an arts and education center renowned for promoting and preserving the region’s history and culture.
“We’re not sure exactly the full damage because we haven’t been able to safely go into the building or really get too close to it,” said Meredith Scalos, its communications director. “We do know that some of our archival materials have flooded out of the building into Whitesburg streets.”
Rebecca Reynolds, Louisville, Kentucky and Timothy D. Easley, Jackson, Kentucky contributed. Sarah Brumfield, Silver Spring, Maryland was also a contributor.
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