By BRUCE SCHREINER and REBECCA REYNOLDS
Rescue workers plucked people off rooftops amid fast-rising water Thursday in central Appalachia, where torrential rains unleashed what Kentucky’s governor described as some of the worst flooding in the state’s history.
One emergency official in hard-hit eastern Kentucky described the situation as “catastrophic” as water rescue crews searched for stranded people. Gov. Andy Beshear said hundreds of properties could be destroyed.
“What we’re going to see coming out of this is massive property damage,” Beshear said during a briefing Thursday. “We expect the loss of life. Hundreds will lose their homes and this is going to be yet another event that it’s going to take not months but likely years for many families to rebuild and recover from.”
Flash flooding and mudslides were reported across the mountainous region of eastern Kentucky, western Virginia and southern West Virginia, where thunderstorms have dumped several inches of rain over the past few days.
Poweroutage.us reported more than 20,000 customers without electricity in eastern Kentucky, and nearly 10,000 more in neighboring states.
“We’re currently experiencing one of the worst, most devastating flooding events in Kentucky’s history,” Beshear said. “The situation is dynamic and ongoing. In most places, we are not seeing receding water. In fact, in most places, it is not crested yet.”
“There are a lot of people in eastern Kentucky on top of roofs waiting to be rescued,” the governor added. “There are a number of people that are unaccounted for and I’m nearly certain this is a situation where we are going to lose some of them.”
Rescue crews worked throughout the night helping people stranded by the rising waters in eastern Kentucky’s Perry County, where Emergency Management Director Jerry Stacy called it a “catastrophic event.”
“We’re just in the rescue mode right now,” Stacy said, speaking with The Associated Press by phone as he struggled to reach his office in Hazard. “Extreme flash flooding and mudslides are just everywhere.”
The storms hit an Appalachian mountain region where communities and homes are built on steep hillsides or down in the hollows between them, where the only flat land often shoulders creeks and streams that can rise in a hurry. But this one is far worse than a typical flood, said Stacy, 54.
“I’ve lived here in Perry County all my life and this is by the far the worst event I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Roads in many areas weren’t passable after as much as 6 inches (15 centimeters) of rain had fallen in some areas by Thursday, and 1-3 more inches (7.5 centimeters) could fall, the National Weather Service said.
Beshear said he has deployed National Guard soldiers to the hardest-hit areas, and three parks in the region were opened as shelters for displaced people.
In Kentucky’s Perry, Leslie and Clay counties, people in low areas were urged to seek higher ground after multiple swift water rescues. Breathitt County’s courthouse was opened overnight, and Emergency Management Director Chris Friley said the Old Montessori School would provide more permanent shelter once crews can staff it.
“It’s the worst we’ve had in quite a while,” Friley told WKYT-TV, “It’s county-wide again. There’s several spots that are still not accessible to rescue crews.”
Perry County dispatchers told WKYT-TV that floodwaters washed out roads and bridges and knocked homes off foundations. The city of Hazard said rescue crews were out all night, urging people on Facebook to stay off roads and “pray for a break in the rain.”
In West Virginia’s Greenbrier County, firefighters pulled people from flooded homes, and five campers who got stranded by high water in Nicholas County were rescued by the Keslers Cross Lanes Volunteer Fire Department, WCHS-TV reported.
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