Kentucky Floods Kill at Least 19 People, and the Governor Warns That the Death Toll Will Be “Far Higher”
Search and rescue teams helped by the National Guard looked for people who were missing after record floods wiped out whole communities in some of the poorest parts of the United States. At least 19 people have died, and the governor of Kentucky said he thought that number would go up.
Governor Andy Beshear said that at least six children were among the 16 people who died. After Beshear said that, the coroner for Breathitt County told CBS News that three more people had died in the floods.
During a briefing Friday afternoon, the governor told reporters, “That’s hard.” “Even worse for those families and communities, so keep praying for them. There are still a lot of people out there who haven’t been found yet. We’ll do our best to find all of them.”
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 quickly and violently that residents, many of whom were still recovering from the last flood, barely had time to get out.
Dennis Gross told WKYT-TV, which is a CBS station, “I lost everything twice.” “I’ve lost everything twice now, and I’m not 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 a long time,” Chris Friley, who is in charge of emergency management in Breathitt County, told WKYT-TV. “It’s back to the whole county. There are still a few places where rescue crews can’t get to.”
WKYT-TV got information from dispatchers in Perry County that floodwaters destroyed roads and bridges and pushed homes off their foundations. The city of Hazard said that rescue workers were out all night and asked people on Facebook to stay off the roads and “pray for a break in the rain.”
Mr. Biden also declared a federal disaster to send aid money to more than a dozen Kentucky counties, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency put an officer in charge of coordinating the recovery.
Beshear had planned to visit the disaster area on Friday, but his office said he had to put it off because the airport where they were going to land is unsafe. He saw the flooding from a helicopter later in the day. He wrote on Twitter that “the situation is even worse when you see it for yourself” and that “the road to recovery will be long.”
More rain After days of heavy rain, the area was hit hard on Friday. The storm caused water to rush down hillsides and out of streambeds, flooding roads and forcing rescue workers to use helicopters and boats to get to people who were stuck. Parts of western Virginia and southern West Virginia were also hurt by flooding. This is an area where poverty is common.
“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.”
As of Friday evening, Poweroutage.us said that more than 31,000 customers in eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia still didn’t have power. Most of these customers were in Kentucky.
In Virginia and West Virginia, rescue crews worked to reach people in places where roads were blocked. Gov. Jim Justice declared a state of emergency in six counties in West Virginia where flooding had knocked down trees, cut off the power, and blocked roads. Gov. Glenn Youngkin also declared an emergency, which allowed Virginia to send help to parts of southwest Virginia that were flooded.
“Since more rain is expected over the next few days, we want to help as many people as we can by giving them as many resources as we can,” Youngkin said in a statement.
The National Weather Service said that another storm front that could bring more storms to the Appalachians early next week could make flood victims in St. Louis, Missouri, unhappy on Friday.
A weather service meteorologist in Jackson, Kentucky, named Brandon Bonds, said that the worst-affected parts of eastern Kentucky got between 8 and 10 1/2 inches of rain in the 48 hours ending Thursday. Overnight, it rained more in some places, like Martin County, which got another 3 inches or so. This led to a new flash flood warning on Friday.
At least in two places, the North Fork of the Kentucky River rose so much that it broke records. Bonds said that a river gauge in Whitesburg measured 20.9 feet, which was more than 6 feet higher than the previous record. In Jackson, the river reached a peak of 43.5 feet, which was also a record.
Krystal Holbrook had had enough by Thursday. She and her family had been working all night to move cars, campers, trailers, and other things as the floodwaters in Jackson rose quickly. “It’s getting a little hard to find higher ground,” she said.
In Whitesburg, Kentucky, floodwaters got into Appalshop, a well-known arts and education centre that promotes and keeps the history and culture of the area alive.
Meredith Scalos, the company’s communications director, said, “We don’t know how much damage there is because we haven’t been able to safely go into the building or get too close to it.” “We do know that some of our old records have been washed out of the building and into the streets of Whitesburg.”