By Brian Knowlton
Devastating flooding in Kentucky has killed 25 people and the toll is expected to rise, the southern US state’s governor said Saturday, as rescuers and residents continued a harrowing search for survivors.
Torrential rain earlier this week caused unprecedented flash flooding in 13 counties in eastern Kentucky.
Many roads and bridges in that mountainous region — an area high in poverty due to the declining coal industry — have been damaged or destroyed. With cell phone service seriously disrupted, finding survivors has been difficult.
“I’m worried we are going to be finding bodies for weeks to come. Keep praying,” Governor Andy Beshear said in a midday news briefing, shortly after tweeting that the death toll had risen to 25 from 16 a day earlier.
The Democratic governor confirmed that “we are still in the search and rescue phase,” saying, “We will get through this together.”
Beshear said an earlier report that six children were among the dead was inaccurate; two of them had turned out to be adults.
The four children, US media reported, were lost in a heart-rending drama. Members of a family, clinging to a tree after a fast-rising stream had engulfed their mobile home, saw their children torn from their grip, one after another, by powerfully surging waters.
Beshear said national guard units from Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia had made more than 650 air rescues since the flooding began Wednesday evening, while state police and other state personnel had registered some 750 water rescues.
He said the search was “tremendously stressful and difficult,” with mudslides and flooded roads blocking travel.
Seventeen-year-old Chloe Adams was home alone in Whitesburg when she awoke to the sound of water rushing into her grandfather’s house, where she lives.
“There was water as far as I could see,” she told CNN. “I had a panic attack.”
Realizing she needed to swim to safety, she put her dog, Sandy, in a plastic tub. They made it only to the roof of a nearby shed, barely above the roaring waters.
She and Sandy sat there, shivering, for five hours until a cousin arrived in a kayak to rescue them.
More rain ahead
Some areas in eastern Kentucky had reported receiving more than eight inches (20 centimeters) of rain in a 24-hour period.
In Whitesburg, the water level of the North Fork of the Kentucky River rose to a staggering 20 feet within hours, well above its previous record of 14.7 feet.
The flooding turned many roads into rivers, and some houses in low-lying areas were almost completely submerged, with just their rooftops visible.
Scenes on social media showed houses ripped from their moorings and deposited amid masses of debris along riverbanks or even atop a bridge.
The weather offered a respite on Saturday, but more rain was expected the following day, with one to two additional inches expected. The National Weather Service has issued flood watches or warnings for most of the area through Sunday.
Beshear told CNN on Saturday that the impending rain posed a challenge, and “while we don’t think it’ll be historic rain, it’ll be hard.”
Once waters begin to recede, he said, further devastation — and death — would likely emerge.
He said during the briefing that 15 emergency shelters had been opened in schools, churches and state parks, though at least one had been “overwhelmed.”
Some 18,000 homes remained without power, Beshear said, and thousands were without safe water supplies.
The governor noted that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had sent 18 tractor-trailers of water so far. Other federal workers were arriving to process claims.
President Joe Biden has issued a disaster declaration for the area, allowing federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts.
The flooding is the latest in a series of extreme weather events that scientists say are an unmistakable sign of climate change.
Nearly 60 people were killed in western Kentucky by a tornado in December 2021 — a disaster that Beshear said offered lessons for current efforts on the other end of the state.
“We learned a lot of lessons in western Kentucky on those devastating tornados about seven months ago, so we are providing as much support as we can and we are moving fast from all over the state to help out,” he said on CNN.
In his briefing, Beshear expressed compassion for hard-hit residents.
“We can’t imagine the grief you’re going through right now,” he said.