JACKSON, Ky. — Search and rescue teams backed by the National Guard searched Friday for people missing during record flooding that wiped out entire communities in some of America’s poorest places. The Kentucky governor said 15 people had died, a toll he expected to rise as the rain continued to fall.
“We still have a lot of research to do,” said Jerry Stacy, director of emergency management in hard-hit Perry County, Kentucky. “We still have people missing.”
Powerful floodwaters engulfed towns that line creeks and creeks in Appalachian valleys and troughs, inundating homes and businesses, leaving vehicles in useless heaps and crushing runaway equipment and debris against bridges. Mudslides on steep slopes left many people stranded and without power, making rescues more difficult.
Gov. Andy Beshear told The Associated Press before visiting the disaster area on Friday that the 15 dead in Kentucky include children, “but I expect that number to more than double, probably even throughout of the day”.
Emergency crews performed nearly 50 air rescues and hundreds of water rescues Thursday, and more people still needed help, the governor said. “It’s not just an ongoing disaster, but an ongoing search and rescue. The water isn’t going to peak in some areas until tomorrow.”
It is difficult to determine the number of people missing with cell service and electricity in the disaster area, he said: “It is so widespread that it is even a challenge for local authorities to collect this number.”
More than 200 people sought refuge, Beshear said. He has deployed National Guard soldiers to the hardest hit areas. Three parks set up shelters, and with such extensive property damage, the governor opened an online portal for donations to victims. 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.
More rain on Friday plagued the region after days of torrential rain. The storm sent water gushing up hills and gushing out of stream beds, flooding roads and forcing rescue teams to use helicopters and boats to reach those trapped. Flooding also damaged parts of 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.”
Poweroutage.us reported that more than 33,000 customers were left without power Friday in eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia, with the bulk of the outages in Kentucky.
Rescue teams also worked in Virginia and West Virginia to reach people in places 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 to flooded areas in southwestern Virginia.
“With more rainfall forecast over the next few days, we want to lean forward in providing as many resources as possible to help those affected,” Youngkin said in a statement.
While some floodwaters receded after peaking Thursday, the National Weather Service said flash flooding remained possible through Friday evening in places across the region.
The hardest-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 pounded with about 3 more inches, leading to a new flash flood warning on Friday.
The North Fork of the Kentucky River broke records in at least two places. A river gauge recorded 20.9 feet (6.4 meters) at Whitesburg, more than 6 feet (1.8 meters) above the previous record, and the river peaked at a record 43.47 feet ( 13.25 meters) in Jackson, Bonds said.
Bonds said some places could see more rain on Friday afternoon and start drying out on Saturday “before things pick up again on Sunday and next week.”
Krystal Holbrook had enough already on Thursday, as her family raced through the night to move vehicles, RVs, trailers and equipment as rapidly rising floodwaters threatened her hometown of Jackson in the Southeast. east of Kentucky. “Higher ground gets a little hard” to find, she said.
In Whitesburg, Kentucky, floodwaters seeped into Appalshop, an arts and education center renowned for promoting and preserving the region’s history and culture.
“We are unsure of the full damage, as we were unable to safely enter the building or get too close to it,” said Meredith Scalos, its communications director. “We know that some of our archival material spilled from the building onto the streets of Whitesburg.”
Associated Press writers Rebecca Reynolds and Dylan Lovan in Louisville, Ky., and Sarah Brumfield in Silver Spring, Md., contributed to this report.
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