Search and rescue teams, supported by the National Guard, searched Friday for missing people in record flooding that wiped out entire communities in some of the poorest places in America. The Kentucky governor said 16 people have died, a toll he expected to rise as the rain continues to fall.
“We still have a lot to look for,” said Jerry Stacy, the director of disaster management in hard-hit Perry County in Kentucky. “We still have missing people.”
Violent floods swallowed up towns that encircle creeks and streams in the valleys and hollows of the Appalachians, flooding homes and businesses, leaving vehicles in useless piles and crushing runaway equipment and debris against bridges. Mudslides on steep slopes left many people stranded and without power, making rescues more difficult.
Governor Andy Beshear told The Associated Press before touring the disaster area Friday that the 15 deaths in Kentucky also include children, “but I expect that number to more than double, probably even today.”
Emergency services conducted nearly 50 aerial rescues and hundreds of water rescues on Thursday, with more people still in need of assistance, the governor said. “This is not only an ongoing disaster, but also an ongoing search and rescue. The water won’t rise until tomorrow in some areas.”
Determining the number of missing people is difficult with cell service and electricity in the disaster area, he said: “This is so widespread, it’s challenging even for local officials to get that number together.”
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More than 200 people have sought shelter, Beshear said. He deployed National Guard soldiers in the hardest hit areas. Three parks set up shelters and with the property damage so extensive, the governor opened an online portal for donations to the victims. President Joe Biden called to show his support for what will be a lengthy recovery effort, Beshear said, predicting it will take more than a year to fully rebuild.
More rain on Friday hit the region after days of heavy rainfall. The storm caused water to spill down the slopes and spill out of the riverbeds, flooding roads and forcing rescue crews to use helicopters and boats to reach trapped people. Floods have also damaged parts of West Virginia and South West Virginia, in a region where poverty is endemic.
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“There are hundreds of families who 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 will be there for them.”
Poweroutage.us reported that more than 33,000 customers were without electricity Friday in eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia, with the majority of the power outages in Kentucky.
Rescue teams also worked in Virginia and West Virginia to reach people in places where roads were impassable. Governor Jim Justice declared a state of emergency for six counties in West Virginia, where floods destroyed trees, blackouts and blocked roads. Governor Glenn Youngkin also issued an emergency declaration, allowing Virginia to mobilize resources in flooded areas of southwest Virginia.
“With more rain forecasted in the coming days, we want to lean forward in providing as many resources as possible to help those affected,” Youngkin said in a statement.
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Although some flooding peaked after Thursday, the National Weather Service said flash flooding could remain possible in places in the region through Friday evening.
The worst-hit areas of eastern Kentucky received between 8 and 10 1/2 inches over a 48-hour period ending Thursday, said Brandon Bonds, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Jackson. Some areas received more rain overnight, including Martin County, which was crushed by another 3 inches or so, triggering another flash flood warning on Friday.
The North Fork of the Kentucky River broke records in at least two places. A river gauge registered 20.9 feet (6.4 meters) in Whitesburg, more than 6 feet above the previous record, and the river reached a record 43.47 feet in Jackson, Bonds said.
Bonds said some places could see more rain Friday afternoon and begin to dry out on Saturday “before things pick up again Sunday and next week.”
Krystal Holbrook had had enough on Thursday, as her family ran all night moving vehicles, RVs, trailers and equipment as escalating flooding threatened her town of Jackson in southeastern Kentucky. “Higher ground is going to be a little hard to find,” she said.
In Whitesburg, Kentucky, water seeped into Appalshop, an arts and education center known for promoting and preserving the region’s history and culture.
“We don’t know exactly the full damage because we couldn’t safely enter the building or really get too close,” said Meredith Scalos, the communications director. “We know that some of our archival materials have spilled out of the building onto the streets of Whitesburg.”
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