Death toll rises in Kentucky flooding

At least 25 people including several children have been killed in devastating floods in the Appalachia region of eastern Kentucky. Gov. Andy Beshear says many people are still missing and expects the death toll to continue to rise. U.S. President Joe Biden has declared the floods a major disaster and freed up federal funds to support local rescuers.

At least 25 people died — including four children — when torrential rains swamped towns across Appalachia, Kentucky’s governor said Saturday.

“We continue to pray for the families that have suffered an unfathomable loss,” Gov. Andy Beshear said. “Some having lost almost everyone in their household.”

Beshear said the number would likely rise significantly and it could take weeks to find all the victims of the record flash flooding. Rescue crews continue the struggle to get into hard-hit areas, some of them among the poorest places in America.

“I’m worried that we’re going to be finding bodies for weeks to come,” Beshear said during a midday briefing.

He said it’s still an active search and rescue operation with a goal of getting as many people to safety as possible. Crews have made more than 1,200 rescues from helicopters and boats, the governor said.

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Beshear, who flew over parts of the flood-stricken region on Friday, described it as “just total devastation, the likes of which we have never seen.”

“We are committed to a full rebuilding effort to get these folks back on their feet,” he said. “But for now, we’re just praying that we don’t lose anybody else.”

The rain let up early Friday after parts of eastern Kentucky received between 20 to 27 centimetres over 48 hours. But some waterways were not expected to crest until Saturday.

‘We’re just hoping we can get some help’

In the tiny community of Garrett on Saturday, couches, tables and pillows soaked by flooding were stacked in yards along the foothills of the mountainous region as people worked to clear out debris and shovel mud from driveways and roads.

In nearby Wayland, Phillip Michael Caudill was working to clean up debris and salvage what he can from the home he shares with his wife and three children. The waters had receded from the house but left a mess behind along with questions about what he and his family will do next.

Phillip Michael Caudill shows a photo of his flooded home in Prestonsburg, Ky., on Saturday. (Dylan Lovan/The Associated Press)

“We’re just hoping we can get some help,” said Caudill, who is staying with his family at Jenny Wiley State Park in a free room, for now.

Caudill, a firefighter in the Garrett community, went out on rescues around 1 a.m. Thursday but had to ask to leave around 3 a.m. so he could go home, where waters were rapidly rising.

“That’s what made it so tough for me,” he said. “Here I am sitting there watching my house become immersed in water and you got people begging for help. And I couldn’t help,” he said, because he needed to tend to his own family.

The water was up to his knees when he arrived home and he had to wade across the yard and carry two of his kids out to the car. He could barely shut the door of his SUV as they were leaving.

Patricia Colombo, 63, of Hazard, Ky., 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.

Patricia Colombo is seen near a flooded car in Jackson on Friday. (Dylan Lovan/The Associated Press)

Colombo stayed the night at her fiancé’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, Mo., 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.

U.S. President Joe Biden declared a federal disaster to direct relief money to more than a dozen Kentucky counties.

‘We’ve still got a lot of searching to do’

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.

A rescue boat is seen in a flooded street in Breathitt County, Ky., on Thursday. (Wolfe County Search & Rescue Team/Reuters)

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.

Portions of some state roads in Kentucky were blocked due to flooding or mudslides. Rescue crews in Virginia and West Virginia worked to reach people where roads weren’t passable.

About 18,000 utility customers in Kentucky remained without power early Saturday, poweroutage.us reported.

‘Battle of extremes’

The deluge came two days after record rains around St. Louis dropped more than 31 centimetres 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.

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.

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“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 vapour and that means you can produce increased heavy rainfall.”