JACKSON, Ky. (AP) — Search and rescue teams backed by the National Guard searched Friday for people missing in record floods that wiped out entire communities in some of the poorest places in America. Kentucky’s governor said 15 people have died, a toll he expected to grow as the rain keeps falling.
“We’ve still got a lot of searching to do,” said Jerry Stacy, the emergency management director in Kentucky’s hard-hit Perry County. “We still have missing people.”
Powerful floodwaters swallowed towns that hug creeks and streams in Appalachian valleys and hollows, leaving vehicles in useless piles, crunching runaway equipment and piles of debris against bridges and swamping homes and businesses. Mudslides on steep slopes left many people marooned and without power and made rescues more difficult.
Gov. Andy Beshear told the AP before touring the disaster area that the 15 dead in Kentucky includes children, “but I expect that number to more than double, probably even throughout today.”
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Determining the number of people unaccounted for is “tough,” he said, with cell service and electricity out across the disaster area. More than 200 people have sought shelter, Beshear said. He deployed National Guard soldiers to the hardest-hit areas. Three parks set up shelters, and with property damage so extensive, the governor opened an online portal for donations to the victims.
“I do believe it will end up being one of the most significant, deadly floods that we have had in Kentucky in at least a very long time,” Beshear said Thursday.
While floodwaters receded in places after peaking Thursday, the National Weather Service said flash flooding caused by excessive rainfall remained possible through Friday evening across the mountains of eastern Kentucky, western Virginia and southern West Virginia, where thunderstorms dumped several inches of rain over the past few days. As much as 6 inches (15 centimeters) of rain had fallen in some spots by Thursday, and 1 to 3 more inches (2.5 to 7.5 centimeters) could fall, the weather service said.
“Places where there were mobile homes and houses, there’s nothing there now … It’s unbelievable to see,” Stacy said. ”You get 8 inches of rain in three hours, it’s just not anything that we have ever seen — ever, here.”
Krystal Holbrook’s family raced to move vehicles, campers, trailers and equipment before dawn Thursday as rapidly rising floodwaters menaced her southeastern Kentucky town of Jackson. “Higher ground is getting a little bit difficult” to find, she said.
More rain Friday tormented the region after days of torrential rainfall. The storm sent water gushing from hillsides and surging out of streambeds, inundating roads and forcing rescue crews to use helicopters and boats to reach trapped people. Parts of western Virginia and southern West Virginia were also hit by flooding.
In Whitesburg, Kentucky, floodwaters seeped into Appalshop, an arts and education center renowned for promoting and preserving the region’s history and culture.
“We’re not sure exactly the full damage because we haven’t been able to safely go into the building or really get too close to it,” said Meredith Scalos, its communications director. “We do know that some of our archival materials have flooded out of the building into Whitesburg streets.”
Poweroutage.us reported more than 33,000 customers remained without electricity Friday in eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia, with the bulk of the outages in Kentucky.
Rescue crews worked feverishly to try to reach people in places where roads weren’t passable.
In West Virginia’s Greenbrier County, firefighters pulled people from flooded homes, and five campers who got stranded by high water in Nicholas County were rescued, WCHS-TV reported.
Gov. Jim Justice declared a state of emergency for six counties in West Virginia after severe thunderstorms this week caused significant local flooding, downed trees, power outages and blocked roads.