JACKSON, Ky. - Search and rescue teams backed by the National Guard searched Friday for people missing in record floods that wiped out entire communities in some of the poorest places in America. Kentucky’s governor said 16 people have died, a toll he expected to grow as the rain keeps falling.
"We’ve still got a lot of searching to do," said Jerry Stacy, the emergency management director in Kentucky ’s hard-hit Perry County. "We still have missing people."
Powerful floodwaters swallowed towns towns that hug creeks and streams in Appalachian valleys and hollows, swamping homes and businesses, trashing vehicles in useless piles and crunching runaway equipment and debris against bridges. Mudslides marooned people on steep slopes and at least 33,000 customers were without power.
Gov. Andy Beshear told The Associated Press Friday that children were among the victims, and that the death toll could more than double as rescue teams search the disaster area.
The six children include four siblings – ages 8, 6, 4 and 1 – who were swept away from their parents' arms in the rising water, Beshear confirmed. Their parents, Amber Smith and Riley Noble, were found alive, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported.
"The tough news is 16 confirmed fatalities now, and folks that’s going to get a lot higher," the governor said during a late-morning briefing. He said the deaths were in four eastern Kentucky counties.
JACKSON, KY - JULY, 28: Homes along Gross Loop off of KY-15 are flooded with water from the North Fork of the Kentucky River. (Photo by Arden S. Barnes/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Emergency crews made close to 50 air rescues and hundreds of water rescues on Thursday, and more people still needed help, the governor said: "This is not only an ongoing disaster but an ongoing search and rescue. The water is not going to crest in some areas until tomorrow."
Determining the number of people unaccounted for is tough with cell service and electricity out across the disaster area, he said: "This is so widespread, it’s a challenge on even local officials to put that number together."
More than 200 people have sought shelter, Beshear said. He deployed National Guard soldiers to the hardest-hit areas. Three parks set up shelters, and with property damage so extensive, the governor opened an online portal for donations to the victims. President Joe Biden called to express his support for what will be a lengthy recovery effort, Beshear said, predicting it will take more than a year to fully rebuild.
Biden also declared a federal disaster to direct relief money to more than a dozen Kentucky counties, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency appointed an officer to coordinate the recovery.
Beshear had planned to tour the disaster area on Friday, but postponed it because conditions at an airport where they planned to land are unsafe, his office said.
More rain Friday tormented the region after days of torrential rainfall. The storm sent water gushing from hillsides and surging out of streambeds, inundating roads and forcing rescue crews to use helicopters and boats to reach trapped people. Flooding also damaged parts of western Virginia and southern West Virginia, across a region where poverty is endemic.
"There are hundreds of families that have lost everything," Beshear said. "And many of these families didn’t have much to begin with. And so it hurts even more. But we’re going to be there for them."
Poweroutage.us reported more than 33,000 customers remained without electricity Friday in eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia, with the bulk of the outages in Kentucky.
Rescue crews also worked in Virginia and West Virginia to reach people in places where roads weren’t passable. Gov. Jim Justice declared a state of emergency for six counties in West Virginia where the flooding downed trees, power outages and blocked roads. Gov. Glenn Youngkin also made an emergency declaration, enabling Virginia to mobilize resources across flooded areas of southwest Virginia.
"With more rainfall forecasted over the next few days, we want to lean forward in providing as many resources possible to assist those affected," Youngkin said in a statement.
While some floodwaters receded after peaking Thursday, the National Weather Service said flash flooding remained possible through Friday evening in places across the region.
The hardest hit areas of eastern Kentucky received between 8 and 10 1/2 inches over a 48-hour period ending Thursday, said Brandon Bonds, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Jackson. Some areas got more rain overnight, including Martin County, which was pounded with another 3 inches or so leading to new a flash flood warning on Friday.
The North Fork of the Kentucky River rose to broke records in at least two places. A river gauge recorded 20.9 feet (6.4 meters) in Whitesburg, more than 6 feet (1.8 meters) over the previous record, and the river crested at a record 43.47 feet (13.25 meters) in Jackson, Bonds said.
Bonds said some places could see more rain Friday afternoon, and begin to dry out on Saturday "before things pick back up Sunday and into next week."
Krystal Holbrook already had enough on Thursday, as her family raced through the night to move vehicles, campers, trailers and equipment as the rapidly rising floodwaters menaced her southeastern Kentucky town of Jackson. "Higher ground is getting a little bit difficult" to find, she said.
In Whitesburg, Kentucky, floodwaters seeped into Appalshop, an arts and education center renowned for promoting and preserving the region's history and culture.
"We’re not sure exactly the full damage because we haven’t been able to safely go into the building or really get too close to it," said Meredith Scalos, its communications director. "We do know that some of our archival materials have flooded out of the building into Whitesburg streets."
Associated Press Writers Rebecca Reynolds and Dylan Lovan in Louisville, Ky., and Sarah Brumfield in Silver Spring, Md., contributed to this report.