“I do believe it’s going to be one of the most significant deadly floods we’ve had in Kentucky in at least a very long time,” he said.
Images shared on social media show flooded homes, swept away cars and severe damage to roads and other infrastructure.
Beshear said people were still waiting to be rescued in the afternoon as police searched for missing people.
“This isn’t just a disaster, it’s an ongoing natural disaster,” Beshear said. “We are in the middle of it. and for a certain place it will go on tonight.”
An additional two to three inches of rain are forecast for the affected area Thursday evening, Beshear said.
Floods were reported early Thursday in numerous counties in southeastern Kentucky, including Breathitt, Floyd, Perry, Knott, Leslie, Pike and Magoffin.
Scott Sandlin, who answered the phone for Perry County Emergency Management, confirmed one death, but he had no details about the victim or the circumstances.
“Our province has been devastated. We just washed out,” Scott said. “It’s the highest water level I’ve ever seen.”
Scott, who has lived in the county for 57 years, said it has rained for the past two to three days. They have received 11 to 14 inches in the past 48 hours and expect another 2 inches of rain Thursday. People are being evacuated. He said the office has received about 200 calls from people trapped in their homes and in the mountains. Bridges have been washed away.
“What we’re going to see from this is massive property damage,” Beshear said. “Hundreds will lose their homes, and this is going to be another event that will take not months, but probably years for many families to rebuild and recover from.”
Beshear issued a state of emergency on Thursday morning and activated the National Guard to assist the victims and recovery efforts. More planes are arriving from West Virginia and boats are being flown in to complement Kentucky Fish and Wildlife’s rescue efforts.
Rescuers on Black Hawk helicopters are actively rescuing people trapped on rooftops, including a school, Adj said. Gene. Haldane B. Lamberton, chief of Kentucky’s Army and Air National Guard during Thursday’s afternoon press conference.
The heavy rainfall was caused by the same stalled weather front that caused historic flooding in St. Louis on Tuesday. The floods in St. Louis and eastern Kentucky are both considered events with a chance of less than 1 in 1,000 in any given year.
Historic flooding in St. Louis kills at least 1, others stranded
The town of Hazard, Ky., was one of the hardest hit, with at least 9 inches of rain in 12 hours from Wednesday night to Thursday morning. Similar sums fell around Jackson. Floods were also widespread near the Virginia-West Virginia border, where homes have been flooded and local media reports people are missing.
In addition to dozens of flooded homes and businesses in Kentucky, some 25,000 customers were left without power due to the storm.
The region where flooding is most common is mountainous, the downpours are amplified by the terrain, which directs water to the valley towns below. In many places, babbling brooks turned into raging rivers within hours, leaving little time to escape.
Rockslides and mudslides have also been reported, some of which have cut off communities.
Flash floods started Wednesday evening after afternoon storms that developed into a raging deluge. Like train cars along a track, storms passed over the same areas repeatedly. The front along which the storms erupted developed along the northern edge of a tropical heat dome that stretched across much of the southern United States.
Extreme levels of humidity fed rain totals, which were “more than double (!) the average annual probability threshold of 1 in 100, and a few inches above even the 1 in 1000 threshold”, tweeted National Weather Service meteorologist Alex Lamers.
Wednesday became Jackson’s second wettest day on record with 4.11 inches; additional rain fell on Thursday morning.
Some of the most commonly reported precipitation totals are:
- Hazard, Ky: 8.55 inches.
- Buckhorn, Ky.: 8.00 inches.
- Oneida, Ky.: 7.20 inches.
- Wiscoal, Ky.: 6.50 inches.
Greater amounts likely occurred, with radar estimates as high as 11 inches. It’s even possible that Kentucky’s 24-hour state record of 10.48 inches was challenged or surpassed.
The North Fork of the Kentucky River shattered its all-time record crest.
It rose to over 6 meters on Thursday morning, easily past the 1957 record of 14.7 meters. The river level shot up 17 meters in less than 12 hours. In some locations, river ridges may not have formed yet, as water continues to flow out of the mountains and downstream.
The extreme rainfall triggered three flash floods, each issued by the Weather Service office in Jackson. Reserved for the worst flooding situations, these emergencies are issued sparingly. They indicate that life-threatening flash floods are occurring.
Tied to human-induced climate change, extreme precipitation events have increased dramatically over the past 100 years. The US government’s National Climate Assessment shows that the probability of heavy rainfall is now about 20 to 40 percent greater in and around eastern Kentucky than it was around 1900.
New rounds of heavy rain are likely through Friday. The Weather Service has placed eastern Kentucky and western West Virginia below a Level 3 of 4 moderate risk of excessive rainfall.
Forecasters expected an additional 1 to 3 inches on Thursday and rainfall to reach 2 to 3 inches per hour on Friday. In addition to ongoing flood warnings, a flood watch will remain in effect until late Friday for much of eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and southern West Virginia.
By Saturday, the front responsible for the flooding is likely to fall south of the region, which should significantly reduce the threat of flooding.
Annie Gowen, Andrea Sachs and Jason Samenow contributed to this report.