JACKSON, Ky. – Kentucky's governor said it could take weeks to find all the victims of flash flooding that killed at least 16 people when torrential rains swamped towns across Appalachia.
More rainstorms are forecast in coming days as rescue crews continue the struggle to get into hard-hit areas, some of them among the poorest places in America.
The rain let up early Friday after parts of eastern Kentucky received between 8 and 10 1/2 inches (20-27 centimeters) over 48 hours. But some waterways were not expected to crest until Saturday and Gov. Andy Beshear warned the death toll could rise further.
“From everything we’ve seen, we may be updating the count of how many we lost for the next several 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 began to panic when water started rushing in. Though her phone was dead, she saw a helicopter overhead and waved it down. The helicopter crew radioed a ground team that plucked her to safety.
Colombo stayed the night at her fiance’s home in Jackson and they took turns sleeping, repeatedly checking the water with flashlights to see if it was rising. Though her car was a loss, Colombo said others had it worse in a region where poverty is endemic.
“Many of these people cannot recover out here. They have homes that are half underwater, they’ve lost everything,” she said.
It’s the latest in a string of catastrophic deluges that have pounded parts of the U.S. this summer, including St. Louis earlier this week and again on Friday. Scientists warn climate change is making weather disasters more common.
As rainfall hammered Appalachia this week, water tumbled down hillsides and into valleys and hollows where it swelled creeks and streams coursing through small towns. The torrent engulfed homes and businesses and trashed vehicles. Mudslides marooned some people on steep slopes.
Rescue teams backed by the National Guard 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 reach more areas. Among those who died were four children from the same family in Knott County, the county coroner said Friday.
President Joe Biden said in a social media post that he spoke Friday with Beshear and offered the federal government's support. Biden also declared a federal disaster to direct relief money to more than a dozen Kentucky counties.
The flooding extended into western Virginia and southern West Virginia.
Gov. Jim Justice declared a state of emergency for six counties in West Virginia where the flooding downed trees, power outages and blocked roads. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin also made an emergency declaration, enabling officials to mobilize resources across the flooded southwest of the state.
More than 20,000 utility customers in Kentucky and almost 6,100 in Virginia remained without power late Friday, poweroutage.us reported.
Extreme rain events have become more common as climate change bakes the planet and alters weather patterns, according to scientists. That’s a growing challenge for officials during disasters, because models used to predict storm impacts are in part based on past events and can’t keep up with increasingly devastating flash floods and heat waves like those that have recently hit the Pacific Northwest and southern Plains.
“It's a battle of extremes going on right now in the United States,” said University of Oklahoma meteorologist Jason Furtado. “These are things we expect to happen because of climate change. ... A warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor and that means you can produce increased heavy rainfall.”
The deluge came two days after record rains around St. Louis dropped more than 12 inches (31 centimeters) and killed at least two people. Last month, heavy rain on mountain snow in Yellowstone National Park triggered historic flooding and the evacuation of more than 10,000 people. In both instances, the rain flooding far exceeded what forecasters predicted.
The floodwaters raging through Appalachia were so swift that some people trapped in their homes couldn’t be immediately reached, said Floyd County Judge-Executive Robbie Williams.
Just to the west in hard-hit Perry County, authorities said some people remained unaccounted for and almost everyone in the area suffered some sort of damage.
“We’ve still got a lot of searching to do,” said Jerry Stacy, the county's emergency management director.
More than 330 people have sought shelter, Beshear said. And with property damage so extensive, the governor opened an online portal for donations to the victims.
Beshear predicted that it would take more than a year to fully rebuild.
The governor got a look at the flooding from aboard a helicopter Friday.
“Hundreds of homes, the ballfields, the parks, businesses under more water than I think any of us have ever seen in that area,” the governor said. “Absolutely impassable in numerous spots. Just devastating.”
Portions of at least 28 state roads in Kentucky were blocked due to flooding or mudslides, Beshear said. Rescue crews in Virginia and West Virginia worked to reach people where roads weren’t 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.