At least 16 people have died in widespread flash flooding in Kentucky, including families with children, a toll the authorities expect to rise on Friday as extreme weather hits several states.
The Kentucky governor, Andy Beshear, said on Friday morning he expected to receive a federal state of emergency declaration later in the morning, which gives state governors extra powers and access to special funding to deal with such a catastrophe, and has been in contact with the White House.
He announced the latest death toll after visiting affected areas but added on Friday morning: “I expect that number to more than double, probably even throughout today.”
“This comes on the back of the worst tornado disaster we have ever seen,” Beshear told CNN on Friday morning, referring to the western part of the state being hit by deadly tornadoes several months ago.
Search and rescue teams backed by the national guard are searching for people missing in the record floods that have wiped out entire towns in some of the poorest places in America.
“There are hundreds of families that have lost everything,” Beshear said. “And many of these families didn’t have much to begin with. And so it hurts even more. But we’re going to be there for them.”
The flooding has hit eastern Kentucky, while extreme weather has also badly affected parts of Arizona, Missouri with flooding, and Nevada, where parts of the main commercial strip in Las Vegas have been under water.
In Kentucky, powerful floodwaters swallowed towns that hug creeks and streams in Appalachian valleys and hollows, swamping houses and businesses, leaving vehicles in useless piles and crunching runaway equipment and debris against bridges. Mudslides on steep slopes left many people marooned and without power, making rescues more difficult.
Krystal Holbrook’s family started moving possessions to higher ground long before dawn on Thursday, racing to save them from the rapidly rising floodwaters that were menacing south-eastern Kentucky.
Her family scurried in the dark to move vehicles, campers, trailers and equipment. But as the water kept rising on Thursday, killing at least eight people that day and then the death toll rising to 15 overnight into Friday, they began to worry that they might run out of higher ground.
“We felt we had most of it moved out of the way,” Holbrook said. “But right now, we’re still moving vehicles even to higher ground. Higher ground is getting a little bit difficult.”
The same was true throughout the region, as another round of rainfall loomed in an area already hammered by days of torrential rainfall.
The storm sent water gushing from hillsides and surging out of stream beds in Appalachia, inundating homes, businesses and roads. Rescue crews used helicopters and boats to pick up people trapped by floodwaters. Parts of western Virginia and southern West Virginia were also hit by flooding.
Beshear asked for prayers as the region braced for more rain. “In a word, this event is devastating,” he 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’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.”
Meanwhile, dangerous conditions and continued rainfall hampered rescue efforts, the governor said.
“We’ve got a lot of people that need help that we can’t get to at the moment,” he said. “We will.”
Flash flooding and mudslides were reported across the mountainous region of eastern Kentucky, western Virginia and southern West Virginia, where thunderstorms dumped several inches of rain over the past few days, with additional flooding that is more extreme than usual still being possible.
Poweroutage.us reported more than 33,000 customers without electricity in eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia, with the bulk of the outages in Kentucky.
Rescue crews worked feverishly to try to reach people trapped by the floodwaters.
“There are a lot of people in eastern Kentucky on top of roofs waiting to be rescued,“ Beshear said on Thursday.
The storms hit an Appalachian mountain region where towns and houses are often perched on steep hillsides or set deep in the hollows between them, where creeks and streams can rise rapidly.