By BRUCE SCHREINER and TIMOTHY D. EASLEY
JACKSON, Ky. (AP) — 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 15 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 that hug creeks and streams in Appalachian valleys and hollows, leaving vehicles in useless piles, crunching runaway equipment and piles of debris against bridges and swamping homes and businesses. Mudslides on steep slopes left many people marooned and without power and made rescues more difficult.
“It is devastating,” Gov. Andy Beshear told CNN before touring the disaster area. “Our number of Kentuckians we’ve lost is now at 15. I expect it to more than double. And it’s going to include some children.”
While floodwaters receded in places after peaking Thursday, the National Weather Service said flash flooding caused by excessive rainfall remained possible through Friday evening.
“Places where there were mobile homes and houses, there’s nothing there now … It’s unbelievable to see,” Stacy said. ”You get 8 inches of rain in three hours, it’s just not anything that we have ever seen — ever, here.”
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.
JACKSON, Ky. (AP) — Krystal Holbrook’s family started moving possessions to higher ground long before dawn, racing to save them from the rapidly rising floodwaters that were menacing southeastern Kentucky.
Her family scurried in the dark to move vehicles, campers, trailers and equipment. But as the water kept rising Thursday — leaving at least eight people dead and hundreds without homes in Kentucky — they began to worry that they might run out of higher ground.
“We felt we had most of it moved out of the way,” Holbrook said. “But right now, we’re still moving vehicles even to higher ground. Higher ground is getting a little bit difficult.”
The same was true throughout the region, as another round of rainfall loomed in an area already hammered by days of torrential rainfall. The storm sent water gushing from hillsides and surging out of streambeds in Appalachia, inundating homes, businesses and roads. Rescue crews used helicopters and boats to pick up people trapped by floodwaters. Parts of western Virginia and southern West Virginia were also hit by flooding.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear asked for prayers as the region braced for more rain.
“In a word, this event is devastating,” Beshear said Thursday. “And I do believe it will end up being one of the most significant, deadly floods that we have had in Kentucky in at least a very long time.”
Beshear warned that property damage in Kentucky would be extensive and opened an online portal for donations that would go to residents affected by the flooding.
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.”
Meanwhile, dangerous conditions and continued rainfall hampered rescue efforts Thursday, the governor said.
“We’ve got a lot of people that need help that we can’t get to at the moment,” he said. “We will.”
Flash flooding and mudslides were reported across the mountainous region of eastern Kentucky, western Virginia and southern West Virginia, where thunderstorms dumped several inches of rain over the past few days.
With more rain expected in the area, the National Weather Service said additional flooding was possible into Friday in much of West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia.
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 worked feverishly to try to reach people trapped by the floodwaters.
“There are a lot of people in eastern Kentucky on top of roofs waiting to be rescued,” Beshear said Thursday. “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.”
In eastern Kentucky’s Perry County, Emergency Management Director Jerry Stacy described the widespread flooding as a “catastrophic event.”
“Extreme flash flooding and mudslides are just everywhere,” Stacy said, speaking with The Associated Press by phone Thursday as he struggled to reach his office in Hazard.
The storms hit an Appalachian mountain region where communities and homes are often perched on steep hillsides or set deep in the hollows between them, where creeks and streams 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 spots by Thursday, and 1 to 3 more inches (2.5 to 7.5 centimeters) could fall, the National Weather Service said.
Beshear said he deployed National Guard soldiers to the hardest-hit areas, and three parks in the region were opened as shelters for displaced people.
The city of Hazard urged 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, WCHS-TV reported.
Gov. Jim Justice declared a state of emergency for six counties in West Virginia after severe thunderstorms this week caused significant local flooding, downed trees, power outages and blocked roads.
Associated Press Writers Rebecca Reynolds and Dylan Lovan in Louisville, Ky., and Sarah Brumfield in Silver Spring, Md., contributed to this report.
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