At least 16 people have been confirmed dead as a result of record flooding in eastern Kentucky, authorities said, warning that the death toll is expected to rise as search and rescue teams look for missing people from communities washed away by the waters.
“The tough news is 16 confirmed fatalities now, and folks that’s going to get a lot higher,” Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said during a Friday morning briefing. Beshear said the dead included elderly men and women, and two children.
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“This isn’t over. While we’re doing search and rescue, there are still real dangers out there. The water hasn’t crested in some areas and won’t until tomorrow,” he told reporters.
Powerful floodwaters swallowed towns that hug creeks and streams in valleys and hollows in the United States’ Appalachia region, swamping homes and businesses, trashing vehicles in useless piles and crushing runaway equipment and debris against bridges.
Mudslides marooned people on steep slopes and tens of thousands of customers were without power on Friday afternoon.
“Everybody out there that is scared, that can’t get in touch with one of their relatives. Cell phones are down in so many of these regions,” Beshear said. “We will try to connect as many people as possible.
The floods resulted from “epic” showers that dumped as much as 25cm (10 inches) of rain on the area in 24 hours, said William Haneberg, an environmental sciences professor and director of the Kentucky Geological Survey.
The region’s terrain of steep hillsides and narrow valleys make it prone to flooding, but the increasing frequency and severity of rain-caused floods in Appalachia are symptomatic of climate change, Haneberg said.
Flood events “are going to be more extreme and frequent, but it’s hard to predict how extreme and how frequent they will be in the future,” he told the Reuters news agency.
‘They’ve lost everything’
Search and rescue teams in Kentucky had rescued at least 294 people, with more than 100 airlifted from affected areas by the National Guard, Beshear said. He also said portions of at least 28 state roads in Kentucky were blocked due to flooding or mudslides.
Rachel Patton said floodwaters filled her Floyd County home so quickly that her mother, who is on oxygen, had to be evacuated on a door that was floated across the high water. Patton’s voice faltered as she described their harrowing escape. “We had to swim out and it was cold. It was over my head so it was, it was scary,” she told WCHS TV.
Another resident, 63-year-old Patricia Colombo, told the Associated Press that she was picked up by a helicopter crew after a state highway flooded, leaving her trapped in her car as the water rose. Colombo lost her vehicle, but said that she was luckier than others.
“Many of these people cannot recover out here. They have homes that are half underwater, they’ve lost everything,” she said.
US President Joe Biden approved Beshear’s request for a disaster declaration in the state, allowing for the release of federal funds to aid in rescue and rebuilding.
Some of the areas most severely affected suffer from high levels of poverty, and Beshear predicted it will take more than a year to recover from the damage.
The flooding situation in Eastern Kentucky is ongoing, with a flood watch in effect through today. Heartbreakingly, we can confirm at least 15 deaths, but we expect that number to grow. Over 23,000 Kentuckians are without power. 1/3 https://t.co/mrx4htJY0k
— Governor Andy Beshear (@GovAndyBeshear) July 29, 2022
Rain continued to fall in the region on Friday and more is expected next week.
Flood warnings and watches remained in effect throughout the day for the eastern half of Kentucky, as well as northeast Tennessee and western West Virginia, where more rainfall was expected to swell waterways already well above their flood stages, the National Weather Service (NWS) said.
Rivers across the region were expected to crest on Friday and throughout the weekend, the NWS also said.
Emergency declarations have been issued in Virginia and West Virginia, and rescue teams in those states have been deployed to assist people in areas where flooding has cut off road access.
On Friday afternoon, some 22,000 homes and businesses in Kentucky and 2,200 in West Virginia were without power, according to Poweroutage.us.
Elsewhere in the US, heavy rains battered Las Vegas, where floodwater washed over streets and rushed onto several casino floors and into parking garages along the famed Las Vegas Strip, video posted on local media and social media showed.
Big time road flooding in the Las Vegas Arts District.
🎥: Jose Amaya pic.twitter.com/kRZZQQcale
— David Charns (@davidcharns) July 29, 2022
At Circa Casino, a video on social media showed rain pouring down from a wall of video displays, while at Planet Hollywood, water rained down on a casino table from what appeared to be a hole in the ceiling.
Several rounds of flooding affected the Midwestern city of St Louis, Missouri this week, with torrential rains on Monday and Tuesday filling the streets with water and a second round of storms on Thursday repeated the flooding.
The city’s fire department said it assisted at least 60 people affected by the high waters and responded to 75 flooding-related emergencies, and the weather service has said that the intensity of the downpour is without precedent in the city’s history.