At least eight people have died in widespread flooding in eastern Kentucky following heavy overnight rains, the governor said Thursday – an inundation he says will be “one of the most significant, deadly floods” in the commonwealth’s history.
“This is an ongoing natural disaster, with more rain expected tonight that could worsen the situation. The death toll has heartbreakingly risen to 8 Kentuckians lost,” Gov. Andy Beshear tweeted.
Beshear said personnel from the National Guard, the Fish & Wildlife Department, state police and local emergency management agencies were responding to the crisis.
Portions of Kentucky around Hazard received more than 9 inches of rain from Wednesday into Thursday morning, according to National Weather Service radar estimates and local observers. The rain in eastern Kentucky overwhelmed creeks, streams and ground already saturated from previous rain, the weather service said. Flood warnings in portions of eastern Kentucky have been extended, in some cases until Monday evening.
Additional rainfall amounts of over an inch are expected through Friday evening. “We’re watching pretty close and it’s not going to take too much to cause some additional flooding issues,” Dustin Jordan, of the weather service office in Jackson, told CNN.
The rains have caused untold damage to homes in the state’s slice of central Appalachia and forced some residents to the roofs of their swamped homes to await rescue, the governor said at a morning news conference.
Eastern Kentucky resident Belinda Asher said she received a flash flood alert on her phone at 1:15 a.m.
“By 2 a.m., everything I had was completely underwater,” she told CNN, adding 10 to 15 other families in a 1-mile stretch also lost everything.
Asher, her husband and three children live on the line dividing Breathitt and Perry counties. Their three-bedroom home and her truck were washed away early Thursday. The family is now staying with her brother-in-law in Hazard.
“I have no plan, I don’t know, how do you start from zero?” she asked.
The governor said the state will need a long time to recover.
“Hundreds will lose their homes, and this is going to be yet another event (where) it’s going to take not months, but likely years, for many families to rebuild and recover,” Beshear said the morning media briefing.
The governor activated the National Guard to help with rescues and recovery and declared an emergency to expedite resources to help, he said.
The Guard has identified people stuck on roofs and was “making preparations to go in and withdraw them,” the state’s adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Hal Lamberton, said Thursday morning, without detailing where these people were.
Video from various locations showed floodwater covering roads and swallowing portions of homes and vehicles.
In the small creekside town of Hindman, a virtual lake pooled into valley areas, nearly covering pickups and encroaching on numerous homes, in some cases reaching almost to their roofs, drone video recorded by storm chaser Brandon Clement showed.
Barbara Wicker was worried about relatives in Hindman, including five grandchildren, because water had surrounded their homes, she told Clement in a predawn interview.
“I can’t reach them. I can’t reach 911. … There’s no help in sight,” Wicker told Clement outdoors in Hindman, a Knott County town roughly a 130-mile drive southeast of Lexington.
In Elkhorn City, Glenda Looney and her husband sat on their porch after moving stuff to the second floor and praying for the water to go down.
The water was a foot deep in the laundry room and the floors in most of the rooms in the house were soaked.
“We are just so thankful that all we have here is cleaning” and ripping up carpets, Looney told CNN. “We feel bad for the people who have lost so much.”
The weather is expected to improve over the weekend. “We should see dry weather start to move back into the area as we move into Saturday for most locations,” the weather service’s Jordan said.
Deaths in at least two counties
Of the people who died as a result of the flooding, at least one died in Perry County, and one in Knott County, Beshear said at an afternoon news conference.
Another was an 81-year-old woman who was a native of Perry County, the governor said, without saying where she died.
The Perry County coroner’s office said it knew of at least one death there Thursday morning – that of an 82-year-old woman whose body was found in Coneva after she was reported missing.
Authorities had to travel half a mile by boat, and walk about a mile by foot, to reach her, said Jeffrey Combs, Perry County’s chief deputy coroner.
Many of the roadways in the county are inaccessible, said Combs, who did not release the woman’s name.
At least 75% of the county has significant damage to roads and bridges and that several homes have been damaged, Perry County Judge Scott Alexander told CNN.
A 76-year-old man and a woman in her late 60s/early 70s died in Clay County after being swept from their homes near the town of Manchester, officials with the coroner’s office said.
It was not immediately clear whether the victims were part of the eight deaths announced by Beshear.
There is no precise number of people missing. The governor said, “There are a number of people that are unaccounted for and I’m nearly certain this is a situation where we are going to lose some of them.”
Residents from Breathitt, Knott, Leslie, Letcher, Owsley, Pike, Perry and Wolfe counties who have family members who are unaccounted for have been asked by Kentucky State Police to have their missing family member’s first and last name, phone number, addresses and descriptions when they reach out to state authorities.
In Floyd County, about 80 people have been rescued, according to Judge/Executive Robbie Williams. He added that most of those were in the western part of the county where it rained 6 to 7 inches in a four-hour period.
“I’ve never seen this much water before,” Williams said. “I mean it just absolutely poured and we’ve got, you know, some small towns that are completely underwater.”
He said he has not heard of any deaths or that anyone is missing.
Region suffers outages of power and water service
The National Guard was deploying helicopters and trucks that can move through water to deliver supplies and transport people, and Beshear also declared an emergency to help unlock other resources, he said Thursday morning. Fish and wildlife workers were “out with boats, working to make water rescues where safe for their personnel,” he said.
Beshear told CNN affiliate WLEX there were air rescues of between 20 and 30 people. Guard units from Tennessee and West Virginia were sending helicopters to help, he said.
Of the rescue crews in the field now, he said: “They are fighting so hard to reach people, but this is so widespread.”
“We have more helicopters on the way thanks to West Virginia and Tennessee National Guard,” Beshear said.
Rescue areas included a school in Breathitt County, where a couple of staff members were stranded in an otherwise empty building, Beshear said. The Guard was preparing to rescue them, Lamberton said Thursday morning.
Almost 24,000 homes and businesses were without power in the state as of 10 p.m., mostly in the east, according to PowerOutage.us.
Water service also was interrupted in parts of eastern Kentucky Thursday, in part because pipes burst in flooding events and systems need to be shut down for repairs, Beshear said. Truckloads of water were being sent to the region, he said.
Three state parks will be available to shelter people who lost their homes, Beshear said.
‘Please stay off the roads’
In the Breathitt County community of Jackson, floodwater swiftly ran past a home in Thursday’s predawn darkness, carrying a trash can and other debris with it, video recorded by Deric Lostutter showed.
Breathitt County opened its courthouse building as a shelter for those displaced by the flooding, the county’s emergency management agency said on Facebook.
“Many roadways in the county are becoming covered with water and are impassable. Please stay off the roads if at all possible tonight,” the post said.
Rescue crews have been unable to reach several areas due to “swift water over roadways,” the emergency management agency noted.
In the Perry County community of Buckhorn, deep floodwaters surrounded a school Thursday morning, forming a large, brown lake around the building and swallowing all but the top of a playground set, video posted to Facebook by Marlene Abner Stokely shows.
Swollen rivers and creeks in the region spilled over the land.
Near Whitesburg, an eastern Kentucky community of more than 1,500 people near the Virginia state line, the North Fork Kentucky River surpassed its previous record height by 5 feet, according to provisional automatic data from the United States Geological Survey.
The gauge there was reading 20.91 feet at 10 a.m. Thursday; the previous record was 14.7 feet, set on January 29, 1957. The data is preliminary and will need to be reviewed, because items can become stuck to the gauge and give false readings during major flooding.
‘Seemingly never-ending fire hose’ of moisture across much of US
Thursday’s inundation in Kentucky comes two days after record-breaking rainfall caused widespread flash flooding in the St. Louis area.
St. Louis was seeing more thunderstorms Thursday and emergency responders were busy with rescues, including evacuating six children at a daycare center.
The weather is part of a “seemingly never-ending fire hose of monsoonal and Gulf of Mexico moisture that is producing a conveyor belt of heavy rain and thunderstorms from the Southwest to the central Appalachians,” the Weather Prediction Center said Thursday morning.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice declared a state of emergency for Fayette, Greenbrier, Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming counties due to significant flooding, according to a news release.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin declared a state of emergency due to the flooding in the southwestern part of his state.
The climate crisis is supercharging rainfall around the world. The atmosphere can hold more moisture as temperatures climb, and that can lead to higher rainfall rates and make record-breaking downpours more likely.
Scientists are increasingly confident in the role that the climate crisis plays in extreme weather, and have warned that these events will become more intense and more dangerous with every fraction of a degree of warming.
CNN’s Dave Hennen, Payton Major, Claudia Dominguez, Amanda Musa, Sara Smart, Chris Boyette, Monica Garrett and Judson Jones contributed to this report