Kentucky flooding death toll rises to 25, expected to further increase
Devastating flooding in Kentucky has killed 25 people and the toll is expected to rise, the southern US governor said Saturday as rescuers and residents continue a harrowing search for survivors.
Heavy rain earlier this week caused unprecedented flash flooding in 13 counties in eastern Kentucky.
Many roads and bridges in that mountainous region – an area hard hit by abject poverty as the coal industry declines – have been damaged or destroyed, and the disruption of cell phone service has made it difficult to find survivors.
“I’m afraid we’ll find bodies in the coming weeks,” Governor Andy Beshear said in an afternoon news conference shortly after tweeting that the death toll had risen to 25.
The Democratic governor confirmed that “we are still in the search and rescue phase,” saying, “We will get through this together.”
Beshear said an earlier report that six children were among the dead was inaccurate; two of them had grown up.
The children, US media reported, have been heartbreakingly lost. Members of a family, clinging to a tree after a rapidly rising stream engulfed their mobile home, saw their children, one after the other, ripped from their grasp by vigorously rushing water.
Beshear said National Guard units from Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia have conducted more than 650 air rescues since the flooding began Wednesday night, while state police and other state personnel had recorded some 750 water rescues.
He said the search was “extremely stressful and difficult” for rescue teams.
Some areas of eastern Kentucky had reported getting more than 20 inches of rain in a 24-hour period.
The water level of the North Fork of the Kentucky River near Whitesburg rose to a staggering 20 feet within hours, well above the previous record of 14.7 feet.
More rain ahead
The floods turned many roads into rivers and some houses in low-lying areas were almost completely submerged, with only their roofs visible.
Scenes on social media showed houses ripped from their moorings and set down amid rubble along murky waterways or even atop a bridge.
The weather offered a reprieve on Saturday, but more rain was expected the following day, with an extra one to two inches expected.
Beshear told CNN on Saturday that the approaching rain presented a challenge, and “although we don’t think it will be historic rain, it will be difficult.”
He said at the briefing that 15 emergency shelters had opened in schools, churches and state parks, though at least one was “overwhelmed.”
About 18,000 homes were without power, Beshear said, and thousands had no safe water supply.
The governor said the Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent 18 tractors with water so far. Other federal employees arrived to process claims.
President Joe Biden has issued a disaster declaration for the floods in Kentucky, allowing federal aid to complement state and local recovery efforts.
The floods in eastern Kentucky are the latest in a series of extreme weather events that scientists say are an undeniable sign of climate change.
A tornado in western Kentucky killed nearly 60 people in December 2021 — a disaster that Beshear said offered lessons for current efforts across the state.
“We learned a lot of lessons in western Kentucky about those devastating tornadoes about seven months ago, so we’re providing as much support as we can and we’re moving quickly from across the state to help,” he told CNN.
In his briefing, Beshear expressed condolences to the hard-hit residents.
“We can’t imagine the grief you are going through right now,” he said.