At least 25 people have died, including at least four children, as historically destructive flooding swept through Eastern Kentucky this week, according to the governor’s office and local authorities. The death toll is “likely to increase” as rescue efforts continue and inaccessible areas open up, according to Gov. Andy Beshear.
More than 1,200 rescues have been made as of Saturday morning, but it’s unknown how many are still missing, and Beshear has said that rescue efforts could take weeks, the Associated Press reported. “This is still an emergency situation,” Beshear said during a Saturday press conference. He added that the state is still in search and rescue mode.
Hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed by the floods as heavy rain hit the area on Wednesday and Thursday. The flooding receded Saturday in some areas, but the flood warning remains in effect as water levels continue to rise in others. Rescue officials feel pressure to continue searches before the expected rain on Sunday, according to Beshear.
The flooding plowed through much of Eastern Kentucky—hitting several counties including: Breathitt, Floyd, Perry, Knott, Leslie, Pike and Magoffin. Eastern Kentucky is situated in Appalachia, and mountainous terrain can prompt instantaneous flooding with little warning. The barren, mine-stripped mountainsides exacerbate quick flooding and subsequent mudslides and landslides for residents of the valleys. People living along creeks and in mobile homes are particularly vulnerable and have few escape routes.
As of Saturday morning, more than 18,000 Kentucky residents were still estimated to be without power, and water access remains limited too. The remoteness of many Appalachian towns is an added challenge during disasters. Areas that have already seen the worst of the floods still have substantial recovery left due to submerged buildings, destroyed infrastructure and roads and hundreds of people left without homes.
“To everyone in Eastern Kentucky, we are going to be there for you today and in the weeks, months and years ahead. We will get through this together,” Beshear tweeted on Saturday morning.
On Friday, President Biden approved an emergency disaster declaration in Kentucky, allowing more than a dozen counties in the state to receive federal aid.
“I spoke with Governor Beshear and Senator McConnell today to offer the full support of the federal government to the people of Kentucky in response to the devastating flooding,” President Biden tweeted.
State agencies and the National Guard have been conducting searches via boat and helicopter for stranded individuals since Thursday. Volunteers have also stepped up to help find, feed and house displaced flood victims.
Experts theorize that the Kentucky floods are a part of a larger pattern of severe weather phenomena caused by climate change. They say that inland flooding in these landlocked areas is increasing as fossil fuels warm up the planet, trapping moisture and causing more severe rain.
“Scientists can observe it in real time now, which is pretty scary. So heavy rain has increased all over the U.S. And in the southeastern U.S., including in Kentucky, it’s increased by almost a third,” Rebecca Hersher, a science reporter at NPR, said in a recent interview.
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