Search and rescue teams backed by the National Guard looked Friday for people missing in record floods that wiped out entire communities in some of the poorest places in America. Kentucky's governor said 16 people have died, a toll he expected to grow.
Gov. Andy Beshear told The Associated Press that children were among the victims, and that the death toll could more than double as rescue teams search the disaster area.
"The tough news is 16 confirmed fatalities now, and folks that's going to get a lot higher," the governor said later at a briefing. He said the deaths were in four eastern Kentucky counties.
Powerful floodwaters swallowed towns that hug creeks and streams in Appalachian valleys and hollows, swamping homes and businesses, trashing vehicles in useless piles and crunching runaway equipment and debris against bridges. Mudslides marooned people on steep slopes and at least 33,000 customers were without power. Numerous state roads were blocked by high water or mud, and crews were "unable to even get to some of these roadways it is so bad," Beshear said.
"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."
Emergency crews made dozens of air rescues and hundreds of water rescues, and more people still needed help, Beshear said: "This is not only an ongoing disaster but an ongoing search and rescue. The water is not going to crest in some areas until tomorrow."
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.
The water was so swift that some people trapped in their homes couldn't be reached on Thursday, said Floyd County Judge-Executive Robbie Williams.
Just to the west in Perry County, some people remained unaccounted for and almost everyone in the area had suffered some sort of damage, firefighter Glenn Caudil said.
"Probably 95% of the people in this area lost everything — houses, cars, animals. It's heartbreaking," Caudil told WCHS.
Determining the number of people unaccounted for is tough with cell service and electricity out across the disaster area, Beshear said: "This is so widespread, it's a challenge on even local officials to put that number together."
More than 330 people have sought shelter, Beshear said. He deployed National Guard soldiers to the hardest-hit areas. With property damage so extensive, the governor opened an online portal for donations to the victims. President Joe Biden called to express his support for what will be a lengthy recovery effort, Beshear said, predicting it will take more than a year to fully rebuild.
Biden also declared a federal disaster to direct relief money to more than a dozen Kentucky counties, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency appointed an officer to coordinate the recovery. FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell joined Beshear at a briefing.
"We're committed to bringing whatever resources are necessary to support the life-saving efforts as well as the ongoing recovery efforts," Criswell said.
Even the governor had problems reaching the devastation. His plans to tour the disaster area on Friday were initially postponed because conditions at an airport where they planned to land were unsafe, his office said. The governor scheduled a flyover for later in the day.
Days of torrential rainfall in the region 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. Flooding also damaged parts of western Virginia and southern West Virginia, across a region where poverty is endemic.
"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."
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 also worked in Virginia and West Virginia to reach people in places where roads weren't passable. Gov. Jim Justice declared a state of emergency for six counties in West Virginia where the flooding downed trees, power outages and blocked roads. Gov. Glenn Youngkin also made an emergency declaration, enabling Virginia to mobilize resources across flooded areas of southwest Virginia.
"With more rainfall forecasted over the next few days, we want to lean forward in providing as many resources possible to assist those affected," Youngkin said in a statement.
The National Weather Service said another storm front adding misery to flood victims in St. Louis, Missouri, on Friday could bring more thunderstorms to the Appalachians, where flash flooding remained possible through Friday evening in places across the region.
Brandon Bonds, a weather service meteorologist in Jackson, said some places could see more rain Friday afternoon and begin to dry out on Saturday "before things pick back up Sunday and into next week."
The hardest hit areas of eastern Kentucky received between 8 and 10 1/2 inches (20-27 centimeters) over a 48-hour period ending Thursday, Bonds said. Some areas got more rain overnight, including Martin County, which was pounded with another 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) or so leading to the new flood warning.
The North Fork of the Kentucky River rose to broke records in at least two places. A river gauge recorded 20.9 feet (6.4 meters) in Whitesburg, more than 6 feet (1.8 meters) over the previous record, and the river crested at a record 43.47 feet (13.25 meters) in Jackson, Bonds 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."