Search and rescue teams backed by the National Guard searched Friday for people missing in record floods that wiped out entire communities in some of the poorest places in America. Kentucky authorities said at least 19 people have died, a toll the governor said he expected to grow.
Gov. Andy Beshear said that 16 people died and at least six children were among the victims. After Beshear’s comments, the Breathitt County coroner told CBS News that an additional three people died in the floods.
“That’s hard,” the governor told reporters during a briefing Friday afternoon. “That’s even harder for those families and those communities, so keep praying. There’s still a lot of people out there, still a lot of people unaccounted for. We’re going to do our best to find them all.”
Beshear said earlier Friday the death toll was “going to get a lot higher.” He said later officials may be updating the number of fatalities “for the next several weeks.”
Powerful floodwaters swallowed towns that hug creeks and streams in Appalachian valleys and hollows, swamping homes and businesses, leaving vehicles in useless piles and crunching runaway equipment and debris against bridges. Mudslides marooned people on steep slopes, and thousands of customers were without power.
“We’ve still got a lot of searching to do,” said Jerry Stacy, the emergency management director in Kentucky’s hard-hit Perry County. “We still have missing people.”
Floodwaters rushed through the area so violently and quickly that residents, many still recovering from the last flood, barely had time to get out.
“I lost everything — twice,” Dennis Gross told CBS affiliate WKYT-TV. “This makes twice that I’ve lost everything, and I ain’t the only one.”
Emergency crews made close to 50 air rescues and hundreds of water rescues on Thursday, and more people still needed help, the governor said. “This is not only an ongoing disaster but an ongoing search and rescue. The water is not going to crest in some areas until tomorrow.”
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.”
More than 290 people have sought shelter, Beshear said. He deployed National Guard soldiers to the hardest-hit areas. Three parks set up shelters, and with property damage so extensive, the governor opened an online portal for donations to the victims. President Biden called to express his support for what will be a lengthy recovery effort, Beshear said, predicting it will take more than a year to fully rebuild.
“It’s the worst we’ve had in quite a while,” Breathitt County Emergency Management Director Chris Friley told WKYT-TV. “It’s county-wide again. There’s several spots that are still not accessible to rescue crews.”
Perry County dispatchers told WKYT-TV that floodwaters washed out roads and bridges and knocked homes off foundations. The city of Hazard said rescue crews were out all night, urging people on Facebook to stay off roads and “pray for a break in the rain.”
Mr. Biden also declared a federal disaster to direct relief money to more than a dozen Kentucky counties, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency appointed an officer to coordinate the recovery.
Beshear had planned to tour the disaster area on Friday, but postponed it because conditions at an airport where they planned to land are unsafe, his office said. He got a look at the flooding later in the day aboard a helicopter. He tweeted that “the situation is even more devastating to see firsthand” and said it will be “a long road to recovery.”
More rain Friday tormented the region after days of torrential rainfall. The storm sent water gushing from hillsides and surging out of streambeds, inundating roads and forcing rescue crews to use helicopters and boats to reach trapped people. Flooding also damaged parts of western Virginia and southern West Virginia, across a region where poverty is endemic.
“There are hundreds of families that have lost everything,” Beshear said. “And many of these families didn’t have much to begin with. And so it hurts even more. But we’re going to be there for them.”
Poweroutage.us reported more than 31,000 customers remained without electricity as of Friday evening in eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia, with the bulk of the outages in Kentucky.
Rescue crews also worked in Virginia and West Virginia to reach people in places where roads weren’t passable. Gov. Jim Justice declared a state of emergency for six counties in West Virginia where the flooding downed trees, caused power outages and blocked roads. Gov. Glenn Youngkin also made an emergency declaration, enabling Virginia to mobilize resources across flooded areas of 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.
The National Weather Service said another storm front adding misery to flood victims in St. Louis, Missouri, on Friday could bring more thunderstorms to the Appalachians early next week.
Brandon Bonds, a weather service meteorologist in Jackson, Kentucky, said the hardest-hit areas of eastern Kentucky received between 8 and 10 1/2 inches over a 48-hour period ending Thursday. Some areas got more rain overnight, including Martin County, which was pounded with another 3 inches or so leading to new a flash flood warning on Friday.
The North Fork of the Kentucky River rose to break records in at least two places. A river gauge recorded 20.9 feet in Whitesburg, more than 6 feet over the previous record, and the river crested at a record 43.5 feet in Jackson, Bonds said.
Krystal Holbrook already had enough on Thursday, as her family raced through the night to move vehicles, campers, trailers and equipment as the rapidly rising floodwaters menaced Jackson. “Higher ground is getting a little bit difficult” to find, she said.
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.”