Massive flooding in eastern Kentucky engulfs homes, leaves several dead

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A new round of catastrophic flooding has struck the central United States, this time in the Appalachian foothills of eastern Kentucky, swamping communities and leaving several people missing or trapped, with at least three people dead.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) called the event “one of the worst, most devastating flooding events in Kentucky’s history” Thursday morning and said “we expect double digit deaths” at a news conference midday.

“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,” he said.

Heavy rainfall on July 28 swept away cars and submerged buildings as eastern Kentucky experienced historic flooding. (Video: The Washington Post)

Images shared on social media show houses submerged to their roofs, cars swept away, and serious damage to roadways and other infrastructure.

Beshear said that people were still waiting to be rescued midday while police searched for missing people.

“This isn’t just a disaster, it’s an ongoing natural disaster,” Beshear said. “We are in the midst of it. and for some place it will continue through tonight.”

An additional two to three inches of rain forecast for the impacted area Thursday night, Beshear said.

Flooding was reported in numerous counties in southeastern Kentucky early Thursday, including Breathitt, Floyd, Perry, Knott, Leslie, Pike and Magoffin.

Scott Sandlin, answering phones for Perry County Emergency Management, confirmed one death, but he didn’t have any details about the victim or circumstances.

“Our county has been devastated. We’ve just washed away,” Scott said. “It’s been the highest level of water I’ve ever seen.”

Scott, who has lived in the county for 57 years, said it’s been raining the last two to three days. They have received 11 to 14 inches in the past 48 hours and are expecting 2 more inches of rain Thursday. People are being evacuated. He said the office has received about 200 calls from people trapped in their home and in the mountains. Bridges have washed away.

“What we’re going to see coming out of this is massive property damage,” Beshear said. “Hundreds will lose their homes, and this is going to be yet another event that it’s going to take not months but likely years for many families to rebuild and recover from.”

Beshear issued a statewide state of emergency and activated the National Guard to assist victims and the recovery effort Thursday morning. Additional planes are coming from West Virginia and boats are being flown in to augment those from Kentucky Fish and Wildlife already conducting rescues.

Rescuers on Black Hawk helicopters are actively engaged in rescuing people trapped on roof tops, including one school, said Adj. Gene. Haldane B. Lamberton, head of the Kentucky’s Army and Air National Guard at the midday news conference Thursday.

The heavy rainfall was spawned by the same stalled weather front that caused historic flooding in St. Louis on Tuesday. The deluges in St. Louis and eastern Kentucky are both considered events with less than a 1 in 1,000 chance of occurring in a given year.

Historic flooding in St. Louis kills at least 1, strands others

The city of Hazard, Ky., was among the hardest-hit, with at least 9 inches of rain falling in 12 hours Wednesday night into Thursday morning. Similar amounts fell around Jackson. High water also was widespread near the Virginia-West Virginia borders, where homes have been flooded and local media reports that people are missing.

In addition to dozens of flooded houses and businesses in Kentucky, about 25,000 customers were without power because of the severe weather.

The region where flooding is most widespread is mountainous, the downpours magnified by the terrain, which funnels water into valley towns below. In many spots, trickling streams turned into raging rivers within a few hours, allowing little time for escape.

Rockslides and mudslides also have been reported, some of which have cut off communities.

Flash flooding began Wednesday night after afternoon storms that evolved into a raging deluge. Like train cars along a track, storms passed over the same areas repeatedly. The front along which the storms erupted developed along the northern periphery of a tropical heat dome sprawled over much of the southern United States.

Extreme levels of atmospheric moisture fed rainfall totals, which were “more than double (!) the 1-in-100 average annual chance threshold, and a couple inches beyond even the 1-in-1000 threshold,” tweeted National Weather Service meteorologist Alex Lamers.

Wednesday became Jackson’s second wettest day on record with 4.11 inches; additional rain fell into Thursday morning.

Some of the top rainfall totals reported include:

  • Hazard, Ky: 8.55 inches.
  • Buckhorn, Ky.: 8.00 inches.
  • Oneida, Ky.: 7.20 inches.
  • Wiscoal, Ky.: 6.50 inches.

Higher amounts probably occurred, with radar estimates as high as 11 inches. It’s even possible that the 24-hour state record for Kentucky of 10.48 inches was challenged or surpassed.

The North Fork of the Kentucky River shattered its all-time record crest.

Rising to over 20 feet on Thursday morning, it easily moved past the record mark of 14.7 feet from 1957. The river level shot up 17 feet in less than 12 hours. River crests may not yet have occurred in some locations as water continues to move out of the mountains and downstream.

The extreme rainfall triggered three flash flood emergencies, each issued by the Weather Service office in Jackson. Reserved for the worst flooding situations, these emergencies are sparingly issued. They indicate that life-threatening flash flooding is occurring.

Tied to human-induced climate change, extreme precipitation events have increased dramatically over the past 100 years. The US government’s National Climate Assessment shows heavy rainfall is now about 20 to 40 percent more likely in and around eastern Kentucky than it was around 1900.

New rounds of heavy rain are likely through Friday. The Weather Service has placed eastern Kentucky and western West Virginia under a Level 3 of 4 moderate risk for excessive rainfall.

Forecasters were expecting 1 to 3 additional inches Thursday and rainfall rates as high as 2 to 3 inches per hour on Friday. In addition to ongoing flood warnings, a flood watch remains in effect until late Friday for much of eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and southern West Virginia.

By Saturday, the front responsible for the flooding is likely to drop south of the region, which should lower the threat of flooding significantly.

Annie Gowen, Andrea Sachs and Jason Samenow contributed to this report.

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