Timothy D. Easley/AP
PRESTONBURG, Ky. — Some Appalachian residents returned to flood-ravaged homes and communities on Saturday to shovel mud and debris and salvage what they could, while Kentucky’s governor said operations Search and rescue efforts were underway in the area submerged by torrential rains days earlier which led to deadly flash floods.
Rescue teams continued the struggle to get into the hardest hit areas, some of the poorest in America. Dozens of deaths have been confirmed and the number is expected to rise.
In the small community of Wayland, Phillip Michael Caudill was working on Saturday cleaning up debris and salvaging what he could from the home he shares with his wife and three children. The waters had receded from the house but left a mess as well as questions about what he and his family would do next.
“We just hope we can get some help,” said Caudill, who is staying with her family at Jenny Wiley State Park in a free room, for now.
Caudill, a firefighter from the nearby community of Garrett, went out in rescue around 1 a.m. Thursday but had to ask to leave around 3 a.m. so he could return home, where the waters were rising rapidly.
“That’s what made it so difficult for me,” he said. “I’m here, sitting there, watching my house sink into the water and you have people crying out for help. And I couldn’t help,” because he was caring for his own family.
The water was up to his knees when he got home and he had to ford the yard and carry two of his children to the car. He could barely close the door of his SUV as they drove off.
Timothy D. Easley/AP
In Garrett on Saturday, flood-soaked sofas, tables and pillows were piled in yards along the foothills of the mountainous region as people worked to clear debris and shovel mud from walkways and roads under a sky now blue.
Hubert Thomas, 60, and his nephew Harvey, 37, fled to Jenny Wiley State Resort Park in Prestonburg after floodwaters destroyed their home in Pine Top late Wednesday night. The two were able to save their dog, CJ, but fear the damage to the home is beyond repair. Hubert Thomas, a retired coal miner, said all of his savings had been invested in his home.
“I have nothing now,” he said.
Harvey Thomas, a paramedic, said he fell asleep to the sound of light rain and his uncle wasted no time waking him up to warn him that the water was getting dangerously close to the house.
“It was going inside and it was only getting worse,” he said, “like at some point we looked at the front door and mine and his cars were playing bumper cars , like bumper boats in the middle of our courtyard facade.”
As for what’s next, Harvey Thomas said he didn’t know, but was grateful to be alive.
“Mountaineers are strong,” he said. “And like I said, it won’t be tomorrow, probably not next month, but I think everyone will be fine. It’s just going to be a long process.”
Kentucky is the latest state to be hit by severe flooding this summer
At least 25 people died – including four children – in the flooding, the Kentucky governor said Saturday.
“We continue to pray for the families who have suffered unfathomable loss,” Governor Andy Beshear said. “Some have lost almost everyone in their household.”
Beshear said the number would likely increase significantly and it could take weeks to find all the victims of the record flash floods. Crews performed more than 1,200 rescues from helicopters and boats, the governor said.
“I fear we will find bodies in the coming weeks,” Beshear said during a midday briefing.
The rain stopped early Friday after parts of eastern Kentucky received between 8 and 10 1/2 inches (20-27 centimeters) in 48 hours. But some waterways were not expected to peak until Saturday. About 18,000 Kentucky utility customers were left without power Saturday, poweroutage.us reported.
It’s the latest in a series of catastrophic deluges that have hit parts of the United States this summer, including St. Louis earlier this week and again on Friday. Scientists warn that climate change is making weather disasters more frequent.
As rains battered Appalachia this week, water rushed down hills and into valleys and hollows where it swelled creeks and creeks flowing through small towns. The torrent engulfed homes and businesses and ransacked vehicles. Landslides have trapped some people on steep slopes.
President Joe Biden has declared a federal disaster to direct relief money to more than a dozen counties in Kentucky.
As climate change affects weather, officials will have to tackle plans on how to manage the impact
The flooding extended west to Virginia and south to West Virginia.
Gov. Jim Justice has declared a state of emergency for six West Virginia counties where flooding has downed trees, knocked out power and blocked roads. Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin also issued an emergency declaration, allowing officials to mobilize resources in the flooded southwest of the state.
The deluge came two days after record rains around St. Louis dropped more than 31 centimeters and killed at least two people. Last month, heavy snowfall rains in the mountains of Yellowstone National Park triggered historic flooding and the evacuation of more than 10,000 people. In both cases, the rain floods far exceeded forecasters’ forecasts.
Extreme rain events have become more frequent as climate change bakes the planet and alters weather patterns, say scientists. This is an increasing challenge for disaster managers because the models used to predict storm impacts are partly based on past events and cannot keep up with increasingly devastating flash floods and heat waves like those that have recently hit the Pacific Northwest and the southern plains.
“It’s a battle of extremes unfolding right now in the United States,” said Jason Furtado, a meteorologist at the University of Oklahoma. “These are things we expect because of climate change. … A warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor and that means you can produce more heavy precipitation.”