At least 16 people are dead after catastrophic US flooding and the death toll is expected to rise – NBCNEWS

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An unknown number of people were missing, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said at a news conference Friday morning, as rescuers scrambled to reach areas difficult to access.

The official statewide death toll “could potentially double” as more information comes in from county officials, the governor said.

Homes are flooded by Lost Creek, Ky., on Thursday, July 28, 2022. Heavy rains have caused flash flooding and mudslides as storms pound parts of central Appalachia. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear says it’s some of the worst flooding in state history. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP) (AP)

He added getting a reliable number of the people who are missing or were killed has been difficult due to the damaged infrastructure.

“There’s going to be multiple families that we’ve lost,” Beshear said.

“Kids that won’t get the opportunity to grow up and experience so much that we have.

“This is so deadly, and it hit so hard, and it hit in the middle of the night,” the governor said, adding although eastern Kentucky often floods, “we’ve never seen something like this.”

Bonnie Combs, right, hugs her 10-year-old granddaughter Adelynn Bowling watches as her property becomes covered by the North Fork of the Kentucky River in Jackson, Ky., Thursday, July 28, 2022. Flash flooding and mudslides were reported across the mountainous region of eastern Kentucky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
Bonnie Combs, right, hugs her 10-year-old granddaughter Adelynn Bowling watches as her property becomes covered by the North Fork of the Kentucky River in Jackson, Ky., Thursday, July 28, 2022. Flash flooding and mudslides were reported across the mountainous region of eastern Kentucky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley) (AP)

Officials “may be updating a count with how many we lost for the next several weeks,” Beshear said Friday afternoon, after taking a helicopter tour of some devastated areas.

At least six children were confirmed dead after the bodies of four missing kids in Knott County had been found, the governor said.

More than two dozen employees of Appalachian Regional Healthcare – the largest health service in eastern Kentucky – were still unaccounted for Friday afternoon, CEO Hollie Phillips told CNN.

Rescuers worked around the clock to reach areas where flooding washed away roads or left them underwater after heavy rain Wednesday night into Thursday.

“Whole roads washed out – we still can’t get to a lot of people. There is so much water. The current is so strong. It is not safe for some of the water rescues that we need to do,” Beshear said earlier Friday.

Homes are flooded by Lost Creek, Ky., on Thursday, July 28, 2022.  Heavy rains have caused flash flooding and mudslides as storms pound parts of central Appalachia. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear says it's some of the worst flooding in state history.  (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)
Homes are flooded by Lost Creek, Ky., on Thursday, July 28, 2022. Heavy rains have caused flash flooding and mudslides as storms pound parts of central Appalachia. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear says it’s some of the worst flooding in state history. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP) (AP)

Swollen floodwaters washed out bridges, wiped out power and sent some residents scrambling to their rooftops as water gushed into their homes.

Some families’ houses and cars were submerged or swept away completely by the flooding, which has been exacerbated by creeks and grounds already soaked from ongoing rainfall.

Houses were “completely swept away in the middle of the night,” possibly while residents were sleeping, Beshear said.

Hundreds of Kentuckians have lost everything they have, the governor said. Officials believe thousands have been affected, he said at the news conference.

There is no reliable number of people unaccounted for, Beshear said. Part of the problem is “communication is still very difficult,” with cell service out in many areas.

“It’s going to be very challenging to get a good number” of missing, the governor said.

The deaths were reported in Knott, Perry, Letcher and Clay Counties.

People work to clear a house from a bridge near the Whitesburg Recycling Center in Letcher County, Ky., on Friday, July 29, 2022. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)
People work to clear a house from a bridge near the Whitesburg Recycling Center in Letcher County, Ky., on Friday, July 29, 2022. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP) (AP)

Fourteen people, including four children, were confirmed dead Friday afternoon in Knott County, according to the county coroner. It was not immediately clear how it factors into the state’s overall death toll. The last official update of 16 deaths statewide included 11 deaths in Knott County.

The governor did not provide an updated toll Friday afternoon, saying officials were still getting updates from local leaders.

Reports of more deaths are coming in, Beshear said, but the deaths have to be verified by the department of health before they can be reported.

The deadly floods come less than eight months after a series of tornadoes ripped through Kentucky, killing at least 74 people.

Men ride in a bpsy along flooded Wolverine Road in Breathitt County, Ky., on Thursday, July 28, 2022. Heavy rains have caused flash flooding and mudslides as storms pound parts of central Appalachia. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear says it's some of the worst flooding in state history. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)
Men ride in a bpsy along flooded Wolverine Road in Breathitt County, Ky., on Thursday, July 28, 2022. Heavy rains have caused flash flooding and mudslides as storms pound parts of central Appalachia. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear says it’s some of the worst flooding in state history. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP) (AP)

The city of Mayfield, in southwestern Kentucky, was among the hardest hit areas. Now, officials are assisting in the flood response efforts in the eastern part of the state.

“Think about the amount of work we’re still doing in Mayfield,” the governor said Friday.

“This Commonwealth was there for them when they were hit by the unimaginable, and they’re going to be there for the people of eastern Kentucky who are facing the same.”

People around the city of Hazard, in the southeast county of Perry, are “so overwhelmed, we don’t really know what to ask for,” Mayor Donald “Happy” Mobelini told CNN Friday morning.

“In downtown Hazard, we don’t really have a ton of property damage here. But in the outlying areas, it’s devastating,” Mobelini said.

Some houses standing for 50-75 years without water ever coming close to them are now flooded, he said.

Seven of the city’s nine bridges are impassable, and “that’s unheard of,” the mayor said.

The town is bracing for news of more deaths, he said.

“Today will be the sad day,” Mobelini said. “It’s all sad … but this is the first time I remember that there’s been a loss of life, and at this point we don’t know what that looks like.”

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)
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) (AP)

The storm “totally annihilated” Perry County’s infrastructure, Sheriff Joe Engle told CNN. “Water, telephone, internet, electricity, all the basic roads, all the basic things you would build a community around have just disappeared,” he said.

“There is a big swathe of the county that’s totally isolated, the state highways are just totally gone,” the sheriff said.

The first confirmed death in the county was of his 82-year-old great aunt, Engle said.

Beshear warned the destruction is not over as rain continued Friday. The governor had planned to take an aerial tour of Hazard, but bad weather prevented it.

“Just that weather should remind us: This isn’t over,” Beshear said.

“The water hasn’t crested in some areas, and won’t until tomorrow,” he said.

Eastern Kentucky has a slight to moderate risk of flash flooding through Friday evening as an additional two to seven centimetres is possible throughout the day, according to the Weather Prediction Center.

And in the region of Jackson, Kentucky, downstream from the hardest-hit flood areas, “streams continue to rise due to excess runoff from earlier rainfall,” the National Weather Service office there said Friday.

Homes are flooded by Lost Creek, Ky., on Thursday, July 28, 2022.  Heavy rains have caused flash flooding and mudslides as storms pound parts of central Appalachia. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear says it's some of the worst flooding in state history.  (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)
Homes are flooded by Lost Creek, Ky., on Thursday, July 28, 2022. Heavy rains have caused flash flooding and mudslides as storms pound parts of central Appalachia. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear says it’s some of the worst flooding in state history. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP) (AP)

The North Fork Kentucky River gauge, in Jackson, crested early Friday at 13.2 metres – setting a record. A river crest is the highest level a river reaches before water levels begin going down again.

The previous record crest, at 13.1 metres, was set on February 4, 1939.

An elderly man and woman died after being swept from their homes in the Oneida Community near Manchester, Kentucky, according to Clay County Coroner Jarrod Becknell.

It is not clear whether the two deaths are included in the statewide toll Beshear announced.

On Thursday evening, Kentucky officials recommended people evacuate the homes and businesses in the flood plain of Panbowl Lake in Jackson, citing the Kentucky River’s rising water level and a “muddy discharge” seen near the lake’s dam. A portion of Kentucky Route 15 was also closed Thursday night.

Volunteers and city workers try to reconnect the water supply to a nursing home in Elkhorn City, Ky., on Friday, July 29, 2022. The pipe, along with some of KY-197, washed away yesterday when the Russell Fork flooded. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)
Volunteers and city workers try to reconnect the water supply to a nursing home in Elkhorn City, Ky., on Friday, July 29, 2022. The pipe, along with some of KY-197, washed away yesterday when the Russell Fork flooded. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP) (AP)

President Joe Biden issued a major disaster declaration for Kentucky Friday after Beshear said he sent a direct request for federal assistance, and Deanne Criswell, the administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was on the ground there Friday.

“FEMA has brought in additional search and rescue teams to support the amazing efforts that are already ongoing on the ground,” Criswell said at the news conference.

Rescues complicated by widespread water, power outages

As floodwaters rose to dangerous levels, some Kentuckians quickly became trapped and were unable to safely escape.

Hundreds of boat rescues and 50 air rescues have been made, Beshear said Friday.

National Guard troops from multiple states are assisting rescue efforts, he said.

In Floyd County, approximately 80 people were rescued after heavy rains began in the area Tuesday, county Judge-Executive Robbie Williams told CNN.

“I’ve never seen this much water before,” Williams said. “I mean it just absolutely poured, and we’ve got, you know, some small towns that are completely underwater.”

Widespread water and power outages in the region were hindering recovery efforts, Beshear said Thursday. He noted the flooding was making it difficult for utility workers to access areas needed to restore power.

More than 23,000 customers were without power across the state as of Friday afternoon, according to PowerOutage.us.

There are 21 drinking systems with damage and outages in eastern Kentucky, the state’s Energy and Environment Cabinet said, and almost all of Perry County “will be out of water for the time being,” the city of Hazard said in a Friday update.

Junior Bowling shovels mud and silt from receded floodwaters in Jackson, Ky., Friday, July 29, 2022. Floodwater from the North Fork of the Kentucky River came within inches of getting inside his home. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
Junior Bowling shovels mud and silt from receded floodwaters in Jackson, Ky., Friday, July 29, 2022. Floodwater from the North Fork of the Kentucky River came within inches of getting inside his home. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley) (AP)

The state also has a limited number of helicopters capable of hoisting people into the air, the governor said. In an effort to assist the state’s recovery efforts, both West Virginia and Tennessee sent helicopters with hoisting abilities to Kentucky.

West Virginia has also deployed National Guard troops to aid its neighbouring state, Governor Justice announced.

Communities also jumped into action to help their neighbours, including residents in the town of Whitesburg.

“We took kayaks, Jet Skis, boats, chain saws and hatchets to every place that we could,” resident Zach Caudill told CNN. Caudill’s home only suffered from a few inches of flooding, but he said several of his neighbours lost their homes completely.

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Caudill grabbed bandages, gauze, medicine, menstrual supplies, food, water, and blankets from his home to take to others, he said.

“Everyone was there trying to lend a hand and help. That’s how tight-knit our community is,” Caudill said. “When one of us hurts, we all hurt.”

Kentucky State Police asked residents of at least eight counties to call them if they have missing family members and to provide information on their loved ones. The counties include Wolfe, Owsley, Breathitt, Knott, Leslie, Letcher, Pike and Perry.

Climate crisis drives more intense flooding

Kentucky was one of several states, including Missouri and Arizona, experiencing severe flooding Thursday amid increasingly extreme weather events amplified by the climate crisis.

In St Louis, record-breaking rainfall at the beginning of the week triggered dangerous flash floods persisting for days and leaving at least one person dead.

As global temperatures climb, the atmosphere is able to hold more and more water, making water vapour more abundantly available to fall as rain.

Home and structures are flooded near Quicksand, Ky., Thursday, July 28, 2022. Heavy rains have caused flash flooding and mudslides as storms pound parts of central Appalachia. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear says it's some of the worst flooding in state history. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)
Home and structures are flooded near Quicksand, Ky., Thursday, July 28, 2022. Heavy rains have caused flash flooding and mudslides as storms pound parts of central Appalachia. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear says it’s some of the worst flooding in state history. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP) (AP)

Rainfall over land has become more intense since the 1980s, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report’s authors say human influence is the main driver.

Human-caused fossil fuel emissions have warmed the planet a little more than 1 degree Celsius, on average, with more intense warming over land areas.

Scientists are increasingly confident in the role the climate crisis plays in extreme weather, and have warned such events will become more intense and more dangerous with every fraction of a degree of warming.

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