HAZARD, Ky. — People brought harrowing stories of survival Friday as they took shelter at a school that had become a refuge for those who lost everything when muddy water rapidly seeped into their homes.
“He blacked out and all he remembers is waking up to lights in his eyes,” said Kristie Gorman, assistant superintendent for the Perry County School District, which is housing the shelter at an elementary school. “And we have tons of stories like that.”
President Biden issued a major disaster declaration for Kentucky on Friday as the death toll rose to at least 16 — including several children — since Wednesday. Families in hard-hit towns began receiving grim news on relatives lost. Others got glimpses of ruined homes. And thousands remained without power from the disastrous flooding.
Meanwhile, a flood watch remained in effect in eastern Kentucky’s Appalachian foothills and Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear said he expected the death toll to more than double.
“As governor, I’ve seen a lot,” he said, recounting previous floods. “This is by far the worst.”
Among the dead — in Perry, Knott, Letcher and Clay counties — were six children, at least three people in their 60s, at least two people in their 70s and an 81-year-old woman, Beshear said. Most of the people were killed in Knott County, a county of about 15,000 located around 150 miles southeast of Lexington.
The disaster status frees federal funding to support recovery — which was still ongoing on Friday. With people stuck on roofs and in trees, first responders conducted about 50 air rescues and hundreds of boat rescues Thursday, Beshear said. Limited cell service made it difficult to determine a count of the missing, and flooding in some areas was not expected to crest for another day.
But as survivors were pulled to safety and displaced residents began arriving at shelters, stories of what they endured began to emerge.
Brittany Trejo told the Lexington Herald-Leader that her cousins, who ranged in age from 1½ to 8, were swept away from their parents in the flooding Thursday.
“They got on the roof and the entire underneath washed out with them and the children. They managed to get to a tree and ... held the children a few hours before a big tide came and wash them all away at the same time,” Trejo said. “The mother and father was stranded in the tree for 8 hours before anyone got there to help.”
Dwayne Applegate, 48, said he lost nearly everything when the waters of the north fork of the Kentucky River overflowed — causing damage throughout the small community of Barwick that he likened to someone having “dropped a bomb on it.”
He fled seeking higher ground, eventually making it to some nearby woods and walking through about four miles of muddy trails. Later, a passerby in a Jeep gave him a ride to Hazard, where the shelter at West Perry Elementary took him in.
“If I was 70,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it.”
Applegate said his mother’s property up on a hill was safe from floodwaters, but essentially cut off on all sides, stranding her. At some point, he hopes to reach her.
“Kentucky people, we pull together because we’re strong,” Applegate said.
The National Weather Service’s Jackson station predicted that rainfall would gradually slow Friday as a cold front moved into the area. More storms, however, are expected to arrive Sunday through Tuesday.
The deluge was sparked by the same weather that caused historic flooding on Tuesday in St. Louis, where at least one person was killed and several others stranded in their cars and homes. The rainfalls there and in Kentucky have less than a 1 in 1,000 chance of happening in a given year.
Human-caused climate change has spurred extreme precipitation events to increase significantly in the past century. Heavy rainfall is now roughly 20 to 40 percent more likely in and near eastern Kentucky than it was around 1900, according to the U.S. government’s National Climate Assessment.
This week’s flash flooding was the second weather-related crisis for Kentucky in the past year. In December, at least 70 people in that state were killed when tornadoes stormed through parts of the South and Midwest.
Hundreds of homes have been lost in what Beshear called “the worst flooding disaster, at least of my lifetime, in Kentucky.” More than 300 people were in shelters. Churches are missing entire walls, and houses have been broken open, exposing the rooms inside. Standing water has made some back roads impassable, while mudslides and downed trees block others.
The mud-coated destruction of the latest emergency became more obvious in some eastern Kentucky communities Friday as the floodwaters began to recede.
In Perry County, the damage done to Buckhorn School — a K-12 facility with more than 300 students — was “just mind-blowing,” said Tim Wooton, the principal. The school filled with at least six feet of water Wednesday night as nearby Squabble Creek swelled above its banks, he said.
Splintered wood, metal and other debris from structures washed away upstream shattered the school’s windows and doors and filled the hallways. Although the school’s exterior walls mostly remained intact, Wooton said the interior had suffered “major” damage.
“There’s nothing salvageable,” Christie Stamper, the school’s assistant principal, said Friday.
The school graduated its 120th class in the spring, Wooton said, and students and residents of the small town of Buckhorn see it as a focal point of the community.
“We’re family,” Stamper said through tears, “and this is the heart of it.”
As floodwaters rose around Price Neace’s home in Lost Creek, Ky., on Wednesday night, his daughter-in-law urged him to flee. He had survived flooding last year, but this time was much worse, said his daughter-in-law, Sue Neace.
Around 2 a.m., Price, 72, left in his pickup truck in search of higher ground. Sue said she didn’t hear from him again until Friday morning.
He had parked his car on dry land and eventually set out on foot, hoping that someone would rescue him, he told her. Sue, 48, said she planned to try to find him.
“This is family,” she said. “You just go.”
Through text messages, Sue determined her father-in-law’s location, about two hours from her home in Waddy, Ky. She messaged him that she was coming to get him after a quick stop at Walmart to buy him some supplies.
In his text, she said, he asked her to bring him a pack of cigarettes.
Iati and Sachs reported from Washington. Jason Samenow contributed to this report.