Appalachian floods kill at least 15 as rescue teams deploy

Search and rescue team is in a red boat in a flooded area.

Members of the Winchester, Ky., Fire Department walk inflatable boats across flood waters over Ky. State Road 15 in Jackson, Ky., to pick up people stranded by the floodwaters Thursday, July 28, 2022. Flash flooding and mudslides were reported across the mountainous region of eastern Kentucky, where thunderstorms have dumped several inches of rain over the past few days. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

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, swamping homes 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.

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.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Emergency crews made close to 50 air rescues and hundreds of water rescues on Thursday, and more people still needed help on Friday, the governor 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.”

Determining the number of people unaccounted for is tough with cell service and electricity out across the disaster area, he said: “This is so widespread, it’s a challenge on even local officials to put that number together.”

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 after an initial damage assessment on Thursday. ”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 through the night to move vehicles, campers, trailers and equipment as rapidly rising floodwaters menaced her southeastern Kentucky town of Jackson. “Higher ground is getting a little bit difficult” to find, she said.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

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. 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.”

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 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.

Get the WHYY app!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal