The Kentucky governor said it could take weeks to find all the victims of the flash floods that killed at least 16 people when torrential rains inundated Appalachian towns.
More rainstorms are expected in the coming days as rescue teams continue their struggle to get into hard-hit areas, some of them 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) in 48 hours. But some waterways are not expected to peak until Saturday and Governor Andy Beshear has warned the death toll could rise further.
“From everything we’ve seen, we can update the number of people we’ve lost over the next few 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, became stranded when her car stalled in floodwaters on a state highway. Colombo started to panic when the water started rushing. Although her phone was dead, she saw a helicopter overhead and waved it down. The helicopter crew radioed a ground crew who got them to safety.
Colombo spent the night at her fiancé’s house in Jackson and they took turns sleeping, repeatedly checking the water with flashlights to see if it was rising. Although his car was a loss, Colombo said others had it worse in an area where poverty is endemic.
“A lot of these people can’t recover here. They have houses half under water, they lost everything,” she said.
It’s the latest in a series of catastrophic deluges that have hit parts of the United States this summer, including St. Louis earlier this week and again on Friday. Scientists warn that climate change is making weather disasters more frequent.
As rains battered Appalachia this week, water rushed down hills and into valleys and hollows where it swelled creeks and creeks flowing through small towns. The torrent engulfed homes and businesses and ransacked vehicles. Landslides have trapped some people on steep slopes.
National Guard-backed rescue teams used helicopters and boats to search for the missing. Beshear said Friday that at least six children were among the victims and that the total number of lives lost could more than double as rescue teams reached more areas. Among those who died were four children from the same Knott County family, the county coroner said Friday.
President Joe Biden said in a social media post that he spoke with Beshear on Friday and offered the federal government’s support. Biden also declared a federal disaster to direct relief money to more than a dozen counties in Kentucky.
The flooding extended west to Virginia and south to West Virginia.
Gov. Jim Justice has declared a state of emergency for six counties in West Virginia where flooding has downed trees, power outages and blocked roads. Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin also issued an emergency declaration, allowing officials to mobilize resources in the flooded southwest of the state.
More than 20,000 utility customers in Kentucky and nearly 6,100 in Virginia were left without power Friday night, poweroutage.us reported.
Extreme rain events have become more frequent as climate change bakes the planet and alters weather patterns, say scientists. This is a growing challenge for disaster managers, as the models used to predict storm impacts are partly based on past events and cannot keep up with flash floods and increasingly devastating heat waves like those that have recently hit the Pacific Northwest and southern Plains.
“It’s a battle of extremes unfolding right now in the United States,” said Jason Furtado, a meteorologist at the University of Oklahoma. “These are things we expect because of climate change. … A warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor and that means you can produce more heavy rain.
The deluge came two days after record rains around St. Louis dropped more than 31 centimeters and killed at least two people. Last month, heavy snowfall rains in the mountains of Yellowstone National Park triggered historic flooding and the evacuation of more than 10,000 people. In both cases, the rain floods far exceeded forecasters’ forecasts.
Floodwaters raging through Appalachia were so swift that some people trapped in their homes could not be immediately reached, Floyd County Executive Judge Robbie Williams said.
Just west, in hard-hit Perry County, authorities said some people were still missing and nearly everyone in the area sustained damage.
“We still have a lot of research to do,” said County Emergency Management Director Jerry Stacy.
More than 330 people sought refuge, Beshear said. And with property damage so extensive, the governor has opened an online portal for victim donations.
Beshear predicted it would take over a year to completely rebuild.
On Friday, the governor was able to observe the flooding from a helicopter.
“Hundreds of homes, ball diamonds, parks, businesses under more water than I think any of us have ever seen in this area,” the governor said. “Absolutely impassable in many places. Just devastating.
Portions of at least 28 Kentucky state highways were blocked due to flooding or landslides, Beshear said. Rescue teams in Virginia and West Virginia worked to reach people where roads were not passable.
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.