WEATHER NEWS: Biden issues disaster declaration as Kentucky flooding kills at least 15
PERRY COUNTY, Ky. — President Biden issued a major disaster declaration for Kentucky on Friday as thousands remained without power from disastrous flooding that has killed at least 16 people, including several children, since Wednesday.
The disaster status frees federal funding to support recovery in eastern Kentucky’s Appalachian foothills, where a flood watch remained in effect and Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear said he expected the death toll to more than double.
“As governor, I’ve seen a lot,” he said. “I’ve certainly done three-plus flights and/or tours over flooded areas. This is by far the worst.”
Biden left a voice mail for Beshear on Thursday night and called Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to offer the federal government’s support, said White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre. More than 20 search-and-rescue teams were operating in Kentucky, she said.
Among the dead — in Perry, Knott, Letcher and Clay counties — were six children,at least three people in their 60s, at least two people in their 70s and an 81-year-old woman, Beshear told reporters. Most of the people were killed in Knott County.
Four of the dead children were identified in a Lexington Herald-Leader story, Beshear said. Brittany Trejo told the newspaper that her cousins, who ranged in age from 1.5 to 8, were swept away from their parents in the flooding Thursday.
With people stuck on roofs and in trees, first responders conducted about 50 air rescues and hundreds of boat rescues Thursday, Beshear said. Efforts were continuing Friday, and limited cell service made it difficult to determine a count of the missing. The flooding in some areas was not expected to crest until Saturday, Beshear said.
The region has also sustained significant property damage, particularly in settlements near creeks and rivers. Churches are missing entire walls, and houses have been broken open to expose bedrooms. Standing water has made some back roads impassable, while mudslides and downed trees block others.
Hundreds of homes have been lost in what Beshear called “the worst flooding disaster, at least of my lifetime, in Kentucky.”
The National Weather Service’s Jackson station predicted that rainfall would gradually slow Friday as a cold front moved into the area. More storms, however, are expected to arrive Sunday through Tuesday.
The deluge was caused by the same weather that caused historic flooding on Tuesday in St. Louis, where at least one person was killed and several others were stranded in their cars and homes. The rainfalls there and in Kentucky have less than a 1 in 1,000 chance of happening in a given year.
The mud-coated destruction across some eastern Kentucky communities became more obvious Friday as the floodwaters began to recede.
In Perry County, the damage done to Buckhorn School — a K-12 facility with more than 300 students — was “just mind-blowing,” said Tim Wooton, the principal. The school filled with at least six feet of water Wednesday night as nearby Squabble Creek swelled above its banks, he said.
Splintered wood, metal and other debris from structures washed away upstream shattered the school’s windows and doors and filled the hallways. Although the school’s exterior walls mostly remained intact, Wooton said the interior had suffered “major” damage.
“There’s nothing salvageable,” Christie Stamper, the school’s assistant principal, said Friday.
The school graduated its 120th class in the spring, Wooton said, and students and residents of the small town of Buckhorn see it as a focal point of the community.
“We’re family,” Stamper said through tears, “and this is the heart of it.”
As floodwaters rose around Price Neace’s home in Lost Creek, Ky., on Wednesday night, his daughter-in-law urged him to flee. He had survived flooding last year, but this time was much worse, said his daughter-in-law, Sue Neace.
Around 2 a.m., Price, 72, left in his pickup truck in search of higher ground. Sue said she didn’t hear from him again until Friday morning.
He had parked his car on dry land and eventually set out on foot, hoping that someone would rescue him, he told her. Sue, 48, said she planned to try to find him.
“This is family,” she said. “You just go.”
Through text messages, Sue determined her father-in-law’s location, about two hours from her home in Waddy, Ky. She messaged him that she was coming to get him after a quick stop at Walmart to buy him some supplies.
In his text, she said, he asked her to bring him a pack of cigarettes.
Iati and Sachs reported from Washington. Jason Samenow contributed to this report.