Flood-related deaths in Appalachia set to rise, more rain expected
By DYLAN LOVAN, BRUCE SCHREINER and MATTHEW BROWN
JACKSON, Ky. – Trapped homeowners swam to safety and others were rescued by boat as a record flash flood killed at least 16 people in Kentucky and flooded entire Appalachian towns, sparking a frantic search for survivors Friday in some of America’s poorest communities.
Heavy rain continued to hit parts of the region and more rain was forecast for early next week. Authorities have warned the death toll is likely to rise sharply and some waterways are unlikely to peak until Saturday.
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.
The water rushed down the hills and into the valleys and hollows of Appalachia where it swelled the streams 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. But some areas remained inaccessible, and Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said the death toll “is going to get much higher.” It could take weeks to account for all the casualties, he said.
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 who were struggling before the floods got worse.
“A lot of these people can’t recover here. They have houses half under water, they lost everything,” she said.
Water entered the Floyd County home of Rachel Patton so quickly that her mother, who is on oxygen, had to be evacuated through a door floating on high water. Patton’s voice trailed off as she described their harrowing escape.
“We had to swim and it was cold. It was over my head so it was scary,” she told WCHS.
Beshear told The Associated Press that at least two children were among the victims and the death toll could more than double as rescue teams reach more areas.
At least 33,000 utility customers were without power. Flooding extended into western Virginia and southern West Virginia, in an area where poverty is rampant.
“There are hundreds of families who have lost everything,” Beshear said. “And a lot of those families didn’t have much to start with. And so that hurts even more. But we’re going to be there for them.”
Extreme rain events have become more frequent as climate change bakes the planet and alters weather patterns, say scientists. It’s a growing challenge for disaster managers because the models used to predict storm impacts are partly based on past events and can’t keep up with flash floods, hurricanes and increasing heat waves. more devastating.
“This is what climate change looks like,” said Jeff Masters, meteorologist and founder of Weather Underground, of the flooding in Appalachia and the Midwest. “These extreme precipitation events are the type one would expect to see in a warming world.”
A day before flooding hit Appalachia, the National Weather Service said Wednesday there was a “light to moderate risk of flash flooding” in the area Thursday.
The deluge came two days after record rains around St. Louis dropped more than 12 inches 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 Perry County Emergency Management Director Jerry Stacy.
More than 290 people sought refuge, Beshear said. And with such extensive property damage, the governor has opened an online portal for victim donations.
President Joe 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.
Biden also declared a federal disaster to direct relief money to more than a dozen counties in Kentucky, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency appointed an officer to coordinate the recovery. FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said in a briefing with Beshear that the agency would provide all necessary resources to support search and recovery efforts.
Even the governor had problems reaching the devastation. His initial plans to visit the disaster area were postponed on Friday due to dangerous conditions at an airport where he was due to land. He was able to observe the flooding later in the day 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.
Gov. Jim Justice has declared a state of emergency for six West Virginia counties where flooding has downed trees, knocked out power and blocked roads. Governor Glenn Youngkin also issued an emergency declaration, allowing Virginia to mobilize resources into the flooded southwest of the state.
The National Weather Service said another storm front adding misery to flood victims in St. Louis on Friday could bring more thunderstorms to Appalachia in the coming days.
The hardest-hit areas of eastern Kentucky received between 8 and 10 1/2 inches (20-27 centimeters) over 48 hours, National Weather Service meteorologist Brandon Bonds said.
The North Fork of the Kentucky River broke records in at least two places. It reached 20.9ft (6.4m) in Whitesburg – more than 6ft (1.8m) above the previous record – and peaked at 43.5ft (13.25m) at Jackson, Bonds said.
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.