JACKSON, Ky. (AP) – The governor of Kentucky said it could take weeks to find all the victims of flash flooding that killed at least 16 people when heavy rains turned streams into torrents that flooded Appalachian towns.
More rainstorms were expected in the coming days, keeping the region on edge as rescue teams struggled to get into hard-hit areas that include some of the poorest places in America.
The rain ended early Friday after parts of eastern Kentucky received between 8 and 10 1/2 inches (20-27 centimeters) in 48 hours. But some waterways were not expected to peak until Saturday and Governor Andy Beshear warned the death toll could rise sharply.
“From everything we’ve seen, we can update the number of people we’ve lost over the next few weeks,” Governor Andy 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 after her car stalled in floodwaters on a state highway. Colombo started to panic when the water started rushing. Her phone was dead, but she saw a helicopter overhead and waved it off. The helicopter crew radioed a ground crew who pulled them safely from their car.
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. Colombo lost his car but 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 hit parts of the United States this summer, including St. Louis earlier this week. and again friday. Scientists warn that climate change is making weather disasters more frequent.
As rains hit Appalachia this week, water poured down hills and into valleys and hollows where it swelled creeks and streams 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, Coroner Corey Watson said Friday.
President Joe Biden said in a social media post that he spoke with Beshear on Friday to offer 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 an increasing challenge for disaster managers, as models used to predict storm impacts are partly based on past events and cannot track with flash floods and increasingly devastating heat waves like those that 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 on 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 Perry 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 fully rebuild.
The governor got a glimpse of the flooding Friday 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.