By Elizabeth Wolfe and Theresa Waldrop, CNN
At least 16 people are dead, including children, and the toll is “going to get a lot higher” following catastrophic flooding in Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear said Friday.
An unknown number of people were missing, Beshear said at a news conference Friday morning, as rescuers scrambled to reach areas difficult to access.
The official statewide death toll “could potentially double” as more information comes in from county officials, the governor told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Friday night. Getting a reliable number of the people who are missing or were killed has been difficult due to the damaged infrastructure, he added.
“There’s going to be multiple families that we’ve lost,” Beshear told CNN’s “New Day” earlier.
“This is so deadly, and it hit so hard, and it hit in the middle of the night,” the governor said, adding although eastern Kentucky often floods, “we’ve never seen something like this.”
Officials “may be updating a count with how many we lost for the next several weeks,” Beshear said Friday afternoon, after taking a helicopter tour of some devastated areas.
The deadly floods come less than eight months after a series of tornadoes ripped through Kentucky, killing at least 74 people. The city of Mayfield, in southwestern Kentucky, was among the hardest hit areas. Now, officials there are assisting in the flood response efforts in the eastern part of the state.
Four young siblings were killed, aunt says
The deaths were reported in Knott, Perry, Letcher and Clay Counties.
Fourteen people, including four children, were confirmed dead Friday afternoon in Knott County, according to the county coroner. It was not immediately clear how it factors into the state’s overall death toll. The last official update of 16 deaths statewide included 11 deaths in Knott County.
The governor did not provide an updated toll Friday afternoon, saying officials were still getting updates from local leaders. Reports of more deaths are coming in, Beshear said, but the deaths have to be verified by the department of health before they can be reported.
At least six children were confirmed dead after the bodies of four missing kids in Knott County had been found, the governor said.
The four children were siblings, their aunt, Brandi Smith, told CNN Friday.
Smith is the sister of the children’s mother, Amber Smith, and identified the four children as Chance, 2; Nevaeh, 4; Riley Jr., 6; and Madison, 8.
The family’s mobile home became quickly flooded with water during the floods and forced the family to seek shelter on the roof, according to Smith, who learned of the deaths from the children’s mother.
“They were holding on to them. The water got so strong it just washed them away,” Smith said, and said her sister and her partner tried to save their children.
An elderly man and woman died after being swept from their homes in the Oneida Community near Manchester, Kentucky, according to Clay County Coroner Jarrod Becknell.
It is not clear whether the two deaths are included in the statewide toll Beshear announced.
Hard to know how many people missing, governor says
Rescuers worked around the clock to reach areas where flooding washed away roads or left them underwater after heavy rain Wednesday night into Thursday.
“Whole roads washed out — we still can’t get to a lot of people,” Beshear said earlier Friday.
Swollen floodwaters washed out bridges, wiped out power and sent some residents scrambling to their rooftops as water gushed into their homes. Some families’ houses and cars were submerged or swept away completely by the flooding, which has been exacerbated by creeks and grounds already soaked from ongoing rainfall.
Hundreds of Kentuckians have lost everything they have, the governor said. Officials believe thousands have been affected, he said at the news conference.
There is no reliable number of people unaccounted for, Beshear said. Part of the problem is “communication is still very difficult,” with cell service out in many areas.
“It’s going to be very challenging to get a good number” of missing, the governor said.
More than two dozen employees of Appalachian Regional Healthcare — the largest health service in eastern Kentucky — were still unaccounted for Friday afternoon, CEO Hollie Phillips told CNN.
Hazard, Kentucky, mayor: ‘It’s devastating’
People around the city of Hazard, in the southeast county of Perry, are “so overwhelmed, we don’t really know what to ask for,” Mayor Donald “Happy” Mobelini told CNN Friday morning.
“In downtown Hazard, we don’t really have a ton of property damage here. But in the outlying areas, it’s devastating,” said Mobelini.
Some houses standing for 50-75 years without water ever coming close to them are now flooded, he said.
Seven of the city’s nine bridges are impassable, and “that’s unheard of,” the mayor said.
The town is bracing for news of more deaths, he said.
“This is the first time I remember that there’s been a loss of life, and at this point we don’t know what that looks like,” Mobelini said.
The storm “totally annihilated” Perry County’s infrastructure, Sheriff Joe Engle told CNN. “Water, telephone, internet, electricity, all the basic roads, all the basic things you would build a community around have just disappeared,” he said.
“There is a big swath of the county that’s totally isolated, the state highways are just totally gone,” the sheriff said.
The first confirmed death in the county was of his 82-year-old great aunt, Engle said.
Record water levels at a river
Beshear warned the destruction was not over as rain continued Friday. The governor had planned to take an aerial tour of Hazard, but bad weather prevented it.
“The water hasn’t crested in some areas, and won’t until tomorrow,” he said.
And in the region of Jackson, Kentucky, downstream from the hardest-hit flood areas, “streams continue to rise due to excess runoff from earlier rainfall,” the National Weather Service office there said Friday.
The North Fork Kentucky River gauge, in Jackson, crested early Friday at 43.47 feet — setting a record. A river crest is the highest level a river reaches before water levels begin going down again.
The previous record crest, at 43.10 feet, was set on February 4, 1939.
On Thursday evening, Kentucky officials recommended people evacuate the homes and businesses in the flood plain of Panbowl Lake in Jackson, citing the Kentucky River’s rising water level and a “muddy discharge” seen near the lake’s dam. A portion of Kentucky Route 15 was also closed Thursday night.
President Joe Biden issued a major disaster declaration for Kentucky Friday after Beshear said he sent a direct request for federal assistance.
“FEMA has brought in additional search and rescue teams to support the amazing efforts that are already ongoing on the ground,” Deanne Criswell, administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said at Friday’s news conference.
Rescues complicated by widespread water, power outages
Hundreds of boat rescues and 50 air rescues have been made, Beshear said Friday. National Guard troops from multiple states are assisting rescue efforts, he said.
In Floyd County, approximately 80 people were rescued after heavy rains began in the area Tuesday, county Judge-Executive Robbie Williams told CNN.
“I’ve never seen this much water before,” Williams said. “We’ve got, you know, some small towns that are completely underwater.”
Widespread water and power outages in the region were hindering recovery efforts, Beshear said Thursday. He noted the flooding was making it difficult for utility workers to access areas needed to restore power.
More than 20,000 customers were without power across the state Friday night, according to PowerOutage.us.
There are 21 drinking systems with damage and outages in eastern Kentucky, the state’s Energy and Environment Cabinet said, and almost all of Perry County “will be out of water for the time being,” the city of Hazard said in a Friday update.
The state also has a limited number of helicopters capable of hoisting people into the air, the governor said. In an effort to assist the state’s recovery efforts, both West Virginia and Tennessee sent helicopters with hoisting abilities to Kentucky.
West Virginia has also deployed National Guard troops to aid its neighboring state, Gov. Jim Justice announced.
Communities also jumped into action to help their neighbors, including residents in the town of Whitesburg.
“We took kayaks, Jet Skis, boats, chain saws and hatchets to every place that we could,” resident Zach Caudill told CNN. Caudill’s home only suffered from a few inches of flooding, but he said several of his neighbors lost their homes completely.
Caudill grabbed bandages, gauze, medicine, menstrual supplies, food, water, and blankets from his home to take to others, he said.
“Everyone was there trying to lend a hand and help. That’s how tight-knit our community is,” Caudill said. “When one of us hurts, we all hurt.”
Climate crisis drives more intense flooding
Kentucky was one of several states, including Missouri and Arizona, experiencing severe flooding Thursday amid increasingly extreme weather events amplified by the climate crisis.
In St. Louis, record-breaking rainfall at the beginning of the week triggered dangerous flash floods persisting for days and leaving at least one person dead.
As global temperatures climb, the atmosphere is able to hold more and more water, making water vapor more abundantly available to fall as rain.
Rainfall over land has become more intense since the 1980s, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report’s authors say human influence is the main driver.
Human-caused fossil fuel emissions have warmed the planet a little more than 1 degree Celsius, on average, with more intense warming over land areas. Scientists are increasingly confident in the role the climate crisis plays in extreme weather, and have warned such events will become more intense and more dangerous with every fraction of a degree of warming.
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CNN’s Joe Johns, Andy Rose, Amanda Watts, Amy Simonson, Angela Fritz, Caitlin Kaiser, Sara Smart, Sharif Paget, Amanda Musa, Claudia Dominguez, Michelle Watson, Caitlyn Kaiser and Jason Hanna contributed to this report.