“He passed out and all he remembers was waking up with lights in his eyes,” said Kristie Gorman, assistant superintendent of the Perry County School District, which houses the shelter in a primary school. “And we have tons of stories like that.”
President Biden issued a major disaster declaration for Kentucky on Friday while the death toll has risen to at least 16 – including several children – since Wednesday. Families in hard-hit towns began to receive grim news of lost loved ones. Others got glimpses of crumbling houses. And thousands of people have been left without power due to catastrophic flooding.
Meanwhile, a flood watch remained in effect in the Appalachian foothills of eastern Kentucky and Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear said he expected the death toll to more than double.
“As governor, I saw a lot of things,” he said, recounting previous floods. “This is by far the worst.”
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 60s and a woman in her 81s, Beshear said. Most people were killed in Knott County, a county of about 15,000 people located about 150 miles southeast of Lexington.
The disaster status frees up federal funds to support the recovery — which was still underway on Friday. With people trapped on rooftops and in trees, first responders carried out about 50 air rescues and hundreds of boat rescues on Thursday, Beshear said. Limited cell service has made it difficult to determine the number of missing, and flooding in some areas is not expected to peak for another day.
But as survivors were brought to safety and displaced residents began to arrive at shelters, stories of what they had endured began to emerge.
Brittany Trejo told the Lexington Herald-Leader that her cousins, ages 1 ½ to 8, were swept away by their parents in Thursday’s floods.
“They got on the roof and everything underneath was taken with them and the kids. They managed to reach a tree and … held the children back for a few hours before a big tide came in and swept them all away at once,” Trejo said. “The mother and father were stuck in the tree for 8 hours before someone arrived to help them.”
How two 1 in 1,000 year rain events hit the United States in two days
Dwayne Applegate, 48, said he lost almost everything when the waters of the North Fork of the Kentucky River overflowed – causing havoc across the small community of Barwick which he compared to someone having ” dropped a bomb on it”.
He fled in search of higher ground, eventually reaching nearby woods and hiking about four miles of muddy trails. Later, a passerby in a Jeep drove him to Hazard, where the West Perry Elementary shelter took him in.
“If I was 70,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it.”
Applegate said her mother’s hillside property was safe from flooding, but essentially cut off on all sides, failing her. At some point, he hopes to reach her.
“People of Kentucky, we stick together because we are strong,” Applegate said.
National Weather Service Jackson Station predicted that precipitation would gradually slow on Friday as a cold front moved through the region. However, more storms are expected to arrive Sunday through Tuesday.
The deluge was triggered by the same weather that caused historic flooding Tuesday in St. Louis, where at least one person was killed and several others trapped in their cars and homes. Precipitation there and in Kentucky has less than a 1 in 1,000 chance of occurring in any given year.
Human-caused climate change has led to a significant increase in extreme precipitation events over the past century. Heavy rain is now about 20 to 40 percent more likely in and near eastern Kentucky than it was around 1900, according to the U.S. government’s National Climate Assessment.
This week’s flash flooding was the second weather-related crisis for Kentucky in the past year. In December, at least 70 people in that state were killed when tornadoes swept through parts of the South and Midwest.
Hundreds of homes were lost in what Beshear called “the worst flooding, at least in my life, in Kentucky.” More than 300 people were in shelters. Churches are missing entire walls and houses have been shattered, exposing the rooms within. Standing water has rendered some secondary roads impassable, while mudslides and downed trees block others.
The mud-covered destruction of the latest emergency became more evident in some eastern Kentucky communities on Friday as floodwaters began to recede.
In Perry County, the damage to Buckhorn School — a K-12 facility with more than 300 students — was “just mind-boggling,” said principal Tim Wooton. The school filled with at least six feet of water Wednesday night as nearby Squabble Creek swelled above its banks, he said.
Shards of wood, metal and other structural debris swept uphill shattered the school’s windows and doors and filled the hallways. Although the exterior walls of the school remained mostly intact, Wooton said the interior suffered “major” damage.
“There’s nothing salvageable,” Christie Stamper, the school’s vice 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 community focal point.
“We’re family,” Stamper said through tears, “and that’s the heart of it.”
As floodwaters rose around Price Neace’s home in Lost Creek, Ky., on Wednesday night, his stepdaughter urged him to flee. He had survived the floods last year, but this time it was much worse, said his daughter-in-law, Sue Neace.
At around 2 a.m., Price, 72, drove off in his van in search of higher ground. Sue said she didn’t hear from him again until Friday morning.
He’d parked his car on dry land and finally walked away, hoping someone would save him, he’d told her. Sue, 48, said she planned to try to find him.
“It’s family,” she said. “You just have to leave.”
Through text messages, Sue determined her stepfather’s location, about two hours from her home in Waddy, Ky. She told him she was picking him up after a quick stop at Walmart to buy him some stationery.
In his text, she says, he asked her to bring him a pack of cigarettes.
Iati and Sachs reported from Washington. Jason Samenow contributed to this report.