JACKSON, Kentucky (TBEN) — The governor of Kentucky said it could take weeks to find all victims of flash floods that killed at least 16 people when torrential rains swept through towns in the Appalachians.
More showers are forecast in the coming days as rescue teams continue the fight to reach hard-hit areas, some of which are among the poorest places in America.
The rain stopped early Friday after parts of eastern Kentucky received between 8 and 10 1/2 inches (20-27 centimeters) for 48 hours. But some waterways weren’t expected until Saturday, and Governor Andy Beshear warned the death toll could rise further.
“From everything we’ve seen, we may be updating the count of how many we’ve lost in the coming weeks,” Beshear said. “In some of these areas, it’s hard to know exactly how many people were there.”
Patricia Colombo, 63, of Hazard, Kentucky, was trapped when her car came to rest in the water on a state highway. Colombo panicked when the water started pouring in. Although her phone was dead, she saw a helicopter overhead and waved it. The helicopter crew called a ground team who took her to safety.
Colombo stayed the night at her fiancé’s house in Jackson and they took turns sleeping, repeatedly checking the water with flashlights to see if it came up. Although her car was a loss, Colombo said others had it worse in a region where poverty is endemic.
“Many of these people cannot recover here. They have houses that are half submerged, they have lost everything,” she said.
It is the latest in a series of catastrophic floods that have ravaged parts of the US this summer, including St. Louis earlier this week and again on Friday. Scientists warn that climate change is making weather disasters more frequent.
As the rain swept across Appalachia this week, water tumbled down slopes and into valleys and hollows where it swelled creeks and streams that flowed through small towns. The deluge engulfed homes and businesses and destroyed vehicles. Mudslides left some people on steep slopes.
Rescue teams supported by the National Guard used helicopters and boats to search for the missing. Beshear said Friday that at least six children were among the victims and the total number of lives lost could more than double as rescue teams reach more areas. Among those who died were four children from the same family in Knott County, the county coroner said Friday.
President Joe Biden said in a social media post that he spoke with Beshear on Friday and supported the federal government. Biden also declared a federal disaster to send aid funds to more than a dozen counties in Kentucky.
The flooding spread to western Virginia and southern West Virginia.
Governor Jim Justice declared a state of emergency for six counties in West Virginia, where floods destroyed trees, blackouts and blocked roads. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin has also issued a declaration of emergency, allowing officials to mobilize resources in the state’s flooded southwest.
More than 20,000 utilities in Kentucky and nearly 6,100 in Virginia were without power late Friday, poweroutage.us reported.
According to scientists, extreme rainfall events are becoming more common as climate change warms the planet and changes weather patterns. That’s a growing challenge for officials during disasters, because models used to predict storm effects are based in part on past events and can’t keep up with the increasingly devastating flash floods and heatwaves that have recently hit the Pacific Northwest and Southern Plains. .
“It’s a battle of extremes in the United States right now,” said University of Oklahoma meteorologist Jason Furtado. “These are things that we expect to happen because of climate change. … A warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor and that means you can produce more heavy rainfall.”
The flood came two days after record rains around St. Louis dropped more than 31 inches and killed at least two people. Last month, heavy rainfall on mountain snow in Yellowstone National Park caused historic flooding and the evacuation of more than 10,000 people. In both cases, rainfall exceeded much greater than forecasters had predicted.
The floods that swept through Appalachia were so rapid that some people trapped in their homes could not be reached immediately, Floyd County District Attorney Robbie Williams said.
Just west of hard-hit Perry County, authorities said some people remained missing and nearly everyone in the area suffered some form of damage.
“We still have a lot to do,” said Jerry Stacy, the county’s director of emergency services.
More than 330 people have sought shelter, Beshear said. And with the property damage so extensive, the governor opened an online portal for donations to the victims.
Beshear predicted it would take more than a year to completely rebuild.
The governor watched the flooding from a helicopter on Friday.
“Hundreds of homes, the ball courts, the parks, businesses are under more water than I think any of us have ever seen in that area,” the governor said. “Absolutely impassable in many places. Just devastating.”
Portions of at least 28 state roads in Kentucky were blocked due to flooding or mudslides, Beshear said. Rescue teams in Virginia and West Virginia worked to reach people where roads were impassable.
Brown reported from Billings, Montana. Contributors include Rebecca Reynolds in Louisville, Kentucky; Timothy D. Easley in Jackson, Kentucky, and Sarah Brumfield in Silver Spring, Maryland.