“I believe this is going to end up being one of the biggest killer floods we’ve had in Kentucky in at least a very long time,” he said.
Images shared on social media show homes submerged to their roofs, cars swept away and severe damage to roads and other infrastructure.
Beshear said people were still waiting to be rescued at midday as police searched for missing people.
“It’s not just a disaster, it’s an ongoing natural disaster,” Beshear said. “We are in the middle. and for one place, it will continue until tonight.
Another two to three inches of rain are forecast for the affected area Thursday night, Beshear said.
Flooding was reported in many southeast Kentucky counties early Thursday, including Breathitt, Floyd, Perry, Knott, Leslie, Pike and Magoffin.
Scott Sandlin, answering the phone for Perry County Emergency Management, confirmed a death, but he had no details about the victim or the circumstances.
“Our department was devastated. We just got swept away,” Scott said. “This is the highest water level I have ever seen.”
Scott, who has lived in the county for 57 years, said it has been raining for the past two or three days. They’ve had 11 to 14 inches in the past 48 hours and are expecting another 2 inches of rain on Thursday. People are evacuated. He said the office had received about 200 calls from people stranded at home and in the mountains. The bridges were washed away.
“What we’re going to see coming out of this is massive property damage,” Beshear said. “Hundreds of people will lose their homes, and it will be yet another event that will take not months but probably years for many families to rebuild and recover.”
Beshear declared a statewide emergency and activated the National Guard to assist victims and recovery efforts Thursday morning. Additional planes are arriving from West Virginia and boats are being flown in to augment those from Kentucky Fish and Wildlife already carrying out rescues.
Black Hawk helicopter rescuers are actively engaged in rescuing people trapped on rooftops, including a school, Adj. Gen. Haldane B. Lamberton, chief of the Kentucky Army and Air National Guard at the noon press conference Thursday.
The heavy rains were brought on by the same stalled weather front that caused historic flooding in St. Louis on Tuesday. Floods in St. Louis and Eastern Kentucky are both considered events with less than a 1 in 1,000 chance of occurring in any given year.
The town of Hazard, Ky., was among the hardest hit, with at least 9 inches of rain falling in 12 hours from Wednesday night through Thursday morning. Similar amounts fell around Jackson. High waters were also widespread near the Virginia-West Virginia borders, where homes were flooded and local media reports that people miss.
Along with dozens of flooded homes and businesses in Kentucky, approximately 25,000 customers were without electricity because of bad weather.
The area where the floods are most prevalent is mountainous, with the downpours amplified by the terrain, which funnels water into the valley towns below. In many places, trickling streams turned into raging rivers within hours, leaving little time to escape.
Landslides and mudslides were also reported, some of which isolated communities.
The flash flooding began Wednesday evening after afternoon storms turned into a raging deluge. Like train cars along a track, the storms passed over the same areas repeatedly. The front along which the storms erupted developed along the northern periphery of an extended tropical heat dome over much of the southern United States.
Extreme levels of atmospheric humidity the total sustained precipitation, which was “more than double (!) the average annual chance threshold of 1 in 100, and a few inches beyond even the threshold of 1 in 1000”, tweeted the National Weather Service meteorologist Alex Lamer.
Wednesday became Jackson’s second wettest day at the back with 4.11 inches; additional rains fell on Thursday morning.
Some major precipitation totals reported to understand:
- Danger, Ky: 8.55 inches.
- Buckhorn, Ky.: 8.00 inches.
- Oneida, Ky.: 7.20 inches.
- Wiscoal, Ky.: 6.50 inches.
Higher 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 has been challenged or exceeded.
The North Fork of the Kentucky River broke its all-time record crest.
Rising to more than 20ft on Thursday morning, it easily surpassed the 1957 record of 14.7ft. The river level rose 17ft in less than 12 hours. River ridges may not yet have occurred in some places as water continues to flow out of the mountains and downstream.
The extreme rainfall triggered three flash floods, each issued by the Jackson Weather Service office. Reserved for the worst flooding situations, these emergencies are issued sparingly. They indicate that life-threatening flash floods are occurring.
Linked to human-induced climate change, extreme precipitation events have increased dramatically over the past 100 years. The US government The national climate assessment shows heavy rainfall is now about 20 to 40 percent more likely in and around eastern Kentucky than it was around 1900.
Further rounds of heavy rain are likely through Friday. The Weather Service has placed eastern Kentucky and western West Virginia under a Moderate Level 3 out of 4 risk of excessive precipitation.
Forecasters were expecting an extra 1 to 3 inches on Thursday and precipitation rate as high as 2 to 3 inches per hour on Fridays. In addition to the current flood warnings, a flood watch remains in effect through Friday evening for much of eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and southern West Virginia.
By Saturday, the flood front is expected to drop south of the region, which should significantly reduce the threat of flooding.
Annie Gowen, Andrea Sachs and Jason Samenow contributed to this report.