At least 16 people died after catastrophic Kentucky floods, and death toll expected to rise

(CNN) — At least 16 people have died, including children, and the toll “will rise” following catastrophic flooding in Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear said Friday.

An unknown number of people were missing, Beshear told a news conference on Friday morning, as rescuers rushed to reach hard-to-reach areas.

“There are going to be several families that we have lost,” Beshear told Brianna Keilar on CNN’s “New Day” earlier. “Children who won’t have the opportunity to grow and experience as much as we do.”

“It’s so deadly, and it hit so hard, and it hit in the middle of the night,” the governor said, adding that although eastern Kentucky is often flooded, “we’ve never seen something like that”.

Officials “may update casualty numbers over the coming weeks,” Beshear said Friday afternoon, after taking a helicopter tour of some of the devastated areas.

At least six children have been confirmed dead after the bodies of four missing children were discovered in Knott County, the governor said.

“Hundreds of homes, their ball diamonds, their parks, their businesses, under more water than I think any of us have ever seen in this area,” Beshear said. “Absolutely impassable in many places.”

Rescuers worked around the clock to reach areas where flooding washed away roads or left them under water after heavy rains from Wednesday night to Thursday.

Live Updates: Deadly Floods in Eastern Kentucky

“Whole roads washed away – we still can’t reach many people. There is so much water. The current is so strong. It’s not safe for some of the water rescues we have to do,” Beshear said earlier on Friday.

Swollen floodwaters swept away bridges, knocked out power and sent some residents rushing to their roofs as water gushed into their homes. The homes and cars of some families were submerged or completely washed away by the floods, which were exacerbated by streams and land already soggy from the ongoing rains.

Homes were “completely swept away in the middle of the night,” possibly while residents slept, Beshear said.

Hundreds of Kentuckians have lost everything, the governor said. Officials believe thousands of people were affected, he said at the press conference.

Tonya Smith seeks food from her mother Ollie Jean Johnson to give to her father, who has no powers. Smith’s trailer was swept away by the flood. | Matt Stone, USA Today via CNN

There is no reliable number of missing people, Beshear said. Part of the problem is that “communication is still very difficult”, with cell service in many areas.

“It’s going to be very difficult to get a good number” of missing, the governor said.

The deaths were reported in four counties: 11 in Knott County, including a 63-year-old man, a 65-year-old woman and two children; an 81-year-old woman in Perry County; two in Letcher County, including a 79-year-old man and a 65-year-old woman; and two people in Clay County, including a 76-year-old woman.

Reports of other deaths are coming in, Beshear said, but deaths must be verified by the Department of Health before they can be reported.

Hazard, Kentucky, mayor: ‘It’s devastating’

Residents of the town of Hazard in southeast Perry County are “so overwhelmed we don’t really know what to ask for,” Mayor Donald “Happy” Mobelini told CNN Friday morning.

“Downtown Hazard, we don’t really have a ton of property damage here. But in outlying areas it’s devastating,” Mobelini said.

Some homes are flooded and have stood for 50 or even 75 years without water coming near them, he said.

Seven of the city’s nine bridges are impassable, and “this is unheard of,” the mayor said.

The city is preparing for news of more deaths, he said.

“Today will be the sad day,” said Mobelini. “Everything is sad. . . but this is the first time i remember there was a loss of life, and at this point we don’t know what it looks like.

The storm “totally wiped out” infrastructure in Perry County, Sheriff Joe Engle told CNN. “The water, the phone, the internet, the electricity, all the basic roads, all the basic things around which you would want to build a community are just gone,” he said.

“There’s a big part of the county that’s totally isolated, the state highways are totally gone,” the sheriff said.

The first confirmed death in the county was that of his 82-year-old great-aunt, Engle said.

More rainfall expected

Beshear warned the destruction is not over as the rain continued on Friday. The governor had planned to make an aerial visit to Hazard, but bad weather prevented him from doing so.

“Just this time should remind us: it’s not over,” Beshear said.

“The water hasn’t peaked in some areas, and it won’t be until tomorrow,” he said.

Eastern Kentucky is at light to moderate risk of flash flooding through Friday evening as an additional 1 to 3 inches is possible throughout the day, according to the Weather Prediction Center.

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Van Jackson checks in on his dog, Jack, who was stranded in a church by floodwaters along Right Beaver Creek in Garrett, Kentucky, on July 28. | Pat McDonogh, USA Today via CNN

And in the Jackson, Ky., area downstream of the hardest-hit floodplains, “streams continue to rise due to excessive runoff from previous rainfall,” the National Weather Service office said Friday.

An elderly man and woman died after being carried from their home in the Oneida community near Manchester, Ky., according to Clay County Coroner Jarrod Becknell. The man was 76 and the woman was in her late 60s or early 70s, Deputy Coroner Joe Crockett said.

It is unclear whether the two deaths are included in the statewide toll announced by Beshear.

Kentucky officials on Thursday night recommended people evacuate homes and businesses from the Lake Panbowl floodplain in Jackson, citing rising water levels in the Kentucky River and a “muddy dump” seen near from the lake dam. Part of Kentucky Route 15 was also closed Thursday night.

President Joe Biden issued a major disaster declaration for Kentucky on Friday after Beshear said he had sent a direct request for federal assistance, and Deanne Criswell, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was in the field on Friday.

“FEMA has brought in additional search and rescue teams to support the incredible efforts that are already underway on the ground,” Criswell said at the press conference.

Rescues complicated by widespread waters, power outages

As floodwaters rose to dangerous levels, some Kentuckians soon became trapped and could not escape to safety. Hundreds of boat rescues and 50 air rescues were carried out, Beshear said on Friday.

National Guards from several states are helping rescue efforts, he said.

In Floyd County, about 80 people were rescued after heavy rains began in the area on Tuesday, County Executive Judge Robbie Williams told CNN.

“I’ve never seen so much water before,” Williams said. “I mean, it’s absolutely raining and we have, you know, little towns completely underwater.”

Widespread water and power outages in the area have hampered recovery efforts, Beshear said Thursday. He noted that the floods made it difficult for utility workers to access areas needed to restore power.

More than 23,000 customers were without power statewide as of Friday afternoon, according to PowerOutage.us.

There are 21 water supply systems with damage and outages in eastern Kentucky, the state’s Energy and Environment Cabinet said, and nearly all of Perry County “will be running out of water at the moment,” Hazard City said in a Friday update.

The state also has a limited number of helicopters capable of lifting people into the air, the governor said. In an effort to aid the state’s recovery efforts, West Virginia and Tennessee sent helicopters with lifting capabilities to Kentucky.

West Virginia has also deployed National Guard troops to help its neighboring state, Governor Justice announced.

Communities have also taken action to help their neighbors, including residents of the Town of Whitesburg.

“We took kayaks, jet skis, boats, chainsaws and hatchets everywhere we could,” Zach Caudill told CNN. Caudill’s home only suffered a few inches of flooding, but he said several of his neighbors lost their homes completely.

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Aerial view of homes submerged by floodwaters in Jackson, Kentucky. At least eight people died and hundreds of homes were destroyed following catastrophic flooding in eastern Kentucky on Thursday. | Leandro Lozada, Getty Images via CNN

Caudill grabbed bandages, gauze, medicine, menstrual supplies, food, water and blankets from his home to take to others, he said.

“Everyone was there to try to lend a hand and help. That’s how tight-knit our community is,” Caudill said. “When one of us hurts, we all hurt.”

Kentucky State Police have asked residents of at least eight counties to call them if they have missing family members and provide information about their loved ones. Counties include Wolfe, Owsley, Breathitt, Knott, Leslie, Letcher, Pike and Perry.

Climate crisis leads to more intense floods

Kentucky was one of several states, including Missouri and Arizona, that experienced severe flooding Thursday amid increasingly extreme weather events that are amplified by the climate crisis.

In St. Louis, record rainfall earlier in the week triggered dangerous flash floods that continued for days and killed at least one person.

As global temperatures rise, the atmosphere is able to hold more and more water, making water vapor more abundantly available to fall as rain.

According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), rainfall over land has become more intense since the 1980s. The report’s authors say human influence is the main driver.

Human-made fossil fuel emissions have warmed the planet by just over 1 degree Celsius, on average, with more intense warming over land. Scientists are increasingly confident in the role the climate crisis is playing in extreme weather events and have warned that these events will become more intense and more dangerous with each fraction of a degree of warming.

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