The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At least 25 dead in Kentucky in devastating flood, governor says

A car and a vintage Hindman Fire Department firetruck were washed up by floodwaters. (Arden S. Barnes for The Washington Post)

HINDMAN, Ky. — The death toll in eastern Kentucky has risen to 25 people, including several children, as search-and-rescue teams continue scouring communities in the Appalachian foothills for survivors of devastating floods.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) said on Saturday that rescue crews were scrambling to take advantage of the drier weather and ebbing floodwaters to locate the missing and whisk survivors to shelters ahead of more rainstorms later Sunday. But he warned of hazardous conditions, downed power lines, and cellphone blackouts in many areas, and said the number of deaths will almost certainly rise.

Some have lost almost everyone in their households, the governor said during a news conference.

Among the dead were four young siblings ages 1 to 8 in Knott County, population 14,000. They and their parents had clambered onto the roof to escape rising floodwaters and, after the roof collapsed, clung to tree branches, according to an account in the Lexington Herald Leader. A swell of water swept the children away.

Rescues continued in Jackson, Ky., on July 29 a day before the governor said at least 25 people were killed in the devastating floods that hit the state. (Video: Jeremy M. Borg/The Washington Post)

“I’m worried that we’re going to be finding bodies for weeks to come,” Beshear said Saturday. “Keep praying. I hope there are no more, we ought to expect there will be more loss.”

Catastrophic rainfall in the region started Tuesday, after record-breaking flooding in St. Louis killed one person. Double-digit rainfall in eastern Kentucky made streams jump their banks. The fast-moving floods tossed cars and trucks like toys, washed out roads, closed bridges, and shoved homes off their foundations.

Many residents escaped in boats or clinging to roofs or tree branches, while others were plucked from the disaster by air or ground. National Guard units from Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia, state police, and fish and wildlife officers searched for victims by land, air and boat. Beshear said first responders had rescued at least 1,432 Kentuckians.

The disaster led to flash flooding, landslides and mudslides. It also is causing tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars in damage, the governor said this week, adding that it could take years to rebuild. Kentucky’s flooding is part of dangerous weather nationwide, from a scorching heat wave that afflicted tens of millions of residents across multiple states to monsoon-like rains that flooded Las Vegas and poured into casinos on the Strip.

In Kentucky, the floods were caused by 1-in-1,000 year rainstorms that scientists say are emblematic of the type of extreme weather that will become more common as the Earth warms.

Thousands of residents lacked water and electricity early Saturday, and crews worked to restore it. Others lacked gas or internet or cellphone service, making it difficult for residents to call for help. Beshear’s office has set up hotlines and email to report the missing.

In the rural city of Hindman, home to 600 people on Troublesome Creek in the eastern coalfields of Kentucky, the fast-rising floodwaters caught many residents off guard. The city has been struggling for years as the coal industry shrank and jobs evaporated, and the area’s terrain remains rugged and isolated, according to a 2018 federal report. Nearly half the residents are living in poverty, census figures show.

Flash flooding made it all worse. Smashed cars lay underneath seemingly every bridge over the creek. Mud was everywhere, caking the floors and cabinets inside homes and standing 2 to 3 inches high on the sidewalk. Some shopkeepers shoveled paths through the mud as if it were snow.

Around 2 a.m. on Thursday morning, Tommy Slone awoke to a loud crash and his wife telling him that their home on a hill outside Hindman was flooding. Half asleep, Slone said, “We’re on a hill, everything drains off.”

“No,” Slone said his wife quickly shot back. “It’s raining like it never has before.”

When he was finally able to survey the damage, Slone said a mudslide had pushed an outbuilding into a tree and his carport.

“Then it all came on top of my house,” Slone said.

His already-steep driveway had eroded so much that he hadn’t been able to get off his property until Saturday morning after he and his neighbors lower on the hill piled up logs and other debris to make their driveway passable.

Slone, who was waiting Saturday in a line at Hindman First Baptist to receive food, bottled water and other donated provisions, repeated a line echoing around Hindman.

“It’s not about us, it’s about everybody,” said Slone, explaining that there were others who fared far worse.

Friends and family had found bodies in their yard. Otis Noble, 54, one of Slone’s neighbors, said his children had classmates who died.

“They’re tore all to pieces by it,” Noble said. “They’re just in kindergarten.”

President Biden, Beshear and several counties have issued disaster declarations for communities battered by heavy rainfall and rising waters.

Statewide, 530 people were in shelters, including more than 140 in state park campgrounds that were opening cottages and campers to people forced from their homes, Beshear said. More trailers were coming in from western Kentucky areas that were destroyed by tornadoes last year. The flooding has stretched into West Virginia and western parts of Virginia.

Beshear said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was sending in 18 tractor trailers of water because many residents lost service and temperatures were expected to rise next week.

In Hindman, Noble said he and Slone had no water.

“You can only do so much with the water that they give you as far as hygiene goes,” Slone said. “It’s not the same.”

How two 1-in-1,000 year rain events hit the U.S. in two days

Noble and Slone said they were determined to find more supplies for themselves and their neighbors.

“It’s a fight to get to the gas station,” Noble said.

Slone said working with his neighbors helps him stay sane in the face of disaster.

“What helps you go, is that you know that you’re not the only one going through it.”

Nine miles west in the tiny town of Fisty, floodwaters devastated rows of houses. Sidewalks that used to lead to front doors ended in muddy pits. Toilets sat amid the piles of cinder blocks.

The creek itself was littered with crumpled cars, children’s toys, lawn chairs, trash cans and long strips of metal siding.

Emergency personnel combed the neighborhoods and surrounding forests on Saturday. A rescue boat with a dog, its nose toward the bank, searched the water.

Beshear, 44, has called the flooding the worst he has seen in his lifetime in Kentucky, and said on Saturday that the death toll rarely reaches that high in heavy rains. But others expressed frustration that such flooding had become more common, and the state and cities and towns were not doing enough to mitigate it.

But there was little reflection on that Saturday as the governor feared they were running out of time to search for the missing and to recover the dead.

The area expects a break in rainfall for about another day and half, but the National Weather Service is predicting more rain and storms for Sunday through Tuesday.

Beshear said officials were working frantically to get as much done as floodwaters ebbed and some roads reopened. He warned residents to prepare for more rain Sunday afternoon, though the storms were not expected to be as severe.

He urged residents to watch out for downed power lines and high water in some areas.

“Make sure you are in a safe place,” he said. “I don’t want to lose one more person.

“It’s not fair that it’s going to rain again. But it is,” Beshear said.

More than 5,600 people had donated to a relief fund, he said, raising more than $684,688. He said the money would go to victims, starting with paying for funerals.

Sacchetti reported from Washington.