JACKSON, Ky. — A new round of catastrophic flooding struck the central United States on Thursday, swamping communities in the Appalachian foothills of eastern Kentucky, leaving more than a dozen people dead and several others missing or trapped.
Beshear called the event “one of the worst, most devastating flooding events in Kentucky’s history,” saying officials expect “double-digit deaths” and describing how rescuers were finding people stranded on rooftops.
“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.
Beshear confirmed the death of an 81-year-old woman in Perry County, along with two other deaths in Perry and Knott counties. Later Thursday, he confirmed five additional fatalities and warned that, with more rain on the way, the danger was not over. He said 20 to 30 people had been airlifted to safety.
“This isn’t just a disaster; it’s an ongoing natural disaster,” Beshear said. “We are in the midst of it, and for some places, it will continue through tonight.”
Images shared on social media show houses submerged to their roofs, cars swept away, and serious damage to roadways and other infrastructure. Local television crews broadcast videos of rescuers in boats and helicopters trying to reach people stuck on what was left of their homes. Meanwhile, family members tried to locate missing loved ones, and survivors recounted harrowing escapes.
Leandra Johnson, 35, said she awoke to a frantic call at 3:28 a.m. from her aunt, who warned that she should leave her home immediately. Johnson, her husband, their 15-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter placed their small daschund-Chihuahua-mix dog in a carrier and put a leash on their Saint Berdoodle and headed out into the dark.
“It was pitch-black dark,” she said. “I don’t even think my shoes matched. I just knew that if we don’t get out of here, we’re going to die.”
The family waded through water, climbed over debris and slid through mud for about two miles before they met up with Johnson’s father, who then drove them to his home.
“When I saw my dad, I just felt so at ease,” she said. “I just felt safe.”
The flooding comes seven months after dozens were killed in Kentucky when tornadoes tore through a swath of the South and the Midwest. 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.
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 storm front developed along the northern periphery of a tropical heat dome that sprawled over much of the southern United States.
The extreme rainfall triggered three flash flood emergencies, each issued by the Weather Service office in Jackson, about 155 miles southeast of Louisville. Reserved for the worst flooding situations, these emergencies are sparingly issued and indicate that life-threatening flash flooding is occurring.
The city of Hazard 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. Flooding also was widespread in Southwest Virginia, where water entered homes and roads, forcing evacuations and rescues. The extreme weather hit just two weeks after devastating flooding in Buchanan County in southwest Virginia.
In addition to dozens of flooded houses and businesses in Kentucky, about 25,000 customers were without power because of the severe weather.
Scott Sandlin, answering phones for the Perry County Emergency Management Agency, said he has lived in the county for 57 years and anticipated “massive property damage.” He said the office has received about 200 calls from people trapped in their home and in the mountains. Bridges have washed away.
“Our county has been devastated. We’ve just washed away,” Scott said. “It’s been the highest level of water I’ve ever seen.”
Johnson and her husband were able to assess the damage to their own property through home security cameras once daylight came.
She saw a refrigerator float across the family’s front yard and the crawl space where they store canned green beans and homemade pickles destroyed. But it appeared that most of the house had been spared.
Despite the widespread destruction, Johnson said she was comforted by the camaraderie of neighbors working together to clear roads and help those displaced. Her family got pizza for lunch from a local school.
“It’s very heartwarming to see everyone coming together to help one another,” she said. “It’s going to take a long time for our community to build back from this.”
Beshear issued a statewide state of emergency and activated the Kentucky National Guard to assist victims and the recovery effort Thursday morning. Additional planes were coming from West Virginia, and boats being flown in to assist those from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.
Black Hawk helicopter crews are rescuing people trapped on rooftops, including at a school, said Maj. Gen. Haldane B. Lamberton, head of the state’s Army and Air National Guard, at the midday news conference Thursday.
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.
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,” National Weather Service meteorologist Alex Lamers tweeted.
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 in Kentucky include Buckhorn Lake, with 10.40 inches, and Pippa Passes, with 9.27 inches. Higher amounts probably occurred, with radar estimates as high as 11 inches. The total at Buckhorn Lake was very close to the 24-hour state record for Kentucky of 10.48 inches.
The north fork of the Kentucky River shattered its 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.
Extreme precipitation events, tied to human-induced climate change, have increased dramatically over the past 100 years. The U.S. government’s National Climate Assessment shows that 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 Friday. In addition to ongoing flood warnings, a flood watch remains in effect until late Friday for much of eastern Kentucky, Southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia.
By Saturday, the front responsible for the flooding is likely to move south of the region, which should lower the threat of flooding significantly.
The displaced began arriving Thursday afternoon at a local community college in Jackson. Tired and anxious, they rested on rows of green cots with bags of belongings and pets nearby.
Closer to the damage, Lesia Watkins stood and watched on a slightly elevated portion of road as murky brown floodwaters swirled around her family’s home on the banks of the north fork of the Kentucky River near Jackson.
As neighbors waded through waist-deep water nearby, Watkins said she hadn’t yet stepped in the water to test the depth around her house, but the lifelong Breathitt County resident added that it was the highest she had ever seen. The water was level with Watkins’s front porch.
“Love your loved ones a little tighter,” Watkins said. “Hug them a little tighter. Don’t take a day for granted. Don’t take nothing for granted.”
Watkins said she and her husband had been up all of the previous night as rain pounded the area. By about 3 a.m., they had lost cell service. They have multiple friends that they haven’t been able to make contact with and are “basically missing.”
“We have a friend who’s got a set of twins and a smaller child,” Watkins said. “Nobody has been able to make contact with her. She was stranded. She had no way of getting out.”
With 1 to 3 more inches of rain forecast for Thursday night into Friday, Watkins said they’ll just have to “wait and see.”
“I’m just wondering if I’ll have a home tomorrow or not,” she said.
Annie Gowen, Teddy Amenabar and Andrea Sachs contributed to this report.