'We need help': Death toll rises in devastating Kentucky flooding

A home flooded by the Troublesome Creek in Kentucky's Breathitt County on July 29, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

HAZARD, KENTUCKY (NYTIMES) - Ms Shirley Stamper, 74, awoke to the sound of wild banging beneath her house.

Floodwaters were swallowing her remote mountain community and Ms Stamper, along with her mother-in-law, Mrs Ethel Stamper, 94, needed to get out immediately.

Not long after, as the waters around them were rapidly rising, Ms Stamper found herself standing barefoot in the mud, barely dressed, as rescuers in a National Guard helicopter urged her to climb aboard.

She turned to her mother-in-law. "I said, 'Ethel, are you getting in that helicopter?'" Ms Stamper recalled on Friday (July 29), sitting in the auditorium of Gospel Light Baptist Church, along with dozens of others rendered homeless in the region-wide devastation.

"She said: 'Yes, I am.'"

The rain continued to fall in parts of eastern Kentucky on Friday, and creeks and rivers were still swelling. But where the floodwaters were receding, the destruction of the past two days was coming slowly but dreadfully into view.

At least 25 people had died, according to reports from the governor's office and local officials.

Governor Andy Beshear said repeatedly that the toll would almost certainly rise.

'I don't want to talk about deaths'

In the rugged topography of central Appalachia, many places were still cut off on Friday, and determining the toll of devastation could take weeks.

There was more rain in the forecast for early next week, adding even greater urgency to rescue efforts.

"We've got to act quickly after the water recedes tomorrow," Mr Beshear said, "certainly before it rains again."

In Breathitt County, Mr Jeffrey Noble, the judge executive, said the storm and the flooding had knocked out the phones for miles around. Even in the county seat of Jackson, he said, main roads and arteries were still blocked.

"They're saying around 250 people are missing," he said. "I don't even want to talk about deaths. I've heard two different numbers, and I'm hoping both of them are wrong."

He was shaken by the stories he had heard from people in the county, as well as the things he had seen first hand, including a truck he had watched being slowly overtaken by water in the middle of the night.

"Homes are washed away, communities are washed away, roads are washed away," Mr Noble said. "I've heard of hundred-year floods, but this is way beyond that. In the history of Kentucky, our county has never seen anything like this."

A resident looks at the remains of his home after it was destroyed by floodwaters in the Lost Creek community in Kentucky's Breathitt County on July 29, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

On Friday, the death toll rose throughout the day.

Perry County's Emergency Management director, Mr Jerry Stacy, said the county's numbers rose from one to four victims by evening.

The coroner from Breathitt County, Mr Hargis Epperson, said at least three in the county were confirmed dead in the floods, with at least a dozen missing.

And the Knott County coroner, Mr Corey Watson, who was working out of a large garage at a local funeral home, said on Friday that he had confirmed 14 deaths, up from 11 from that morning.

"There's still people unaccounted for," Mr Watson added.

Residents get emotional talking about a missing loved one at Gospel Light Baptist Church in Hazard, Kentucky, on July 29, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

A family's tragedy

What was known on Friday was already heartbreaking. Among the dead were at least six children, including four from one family.

Riley Noble Jr, six, and Nevaeh Noble, four, were found on Thursday, and on Friday their siblings, Maddison Noble, eight, and Chance Noble, one, were discovered, all within 45m of one another, a relative, Ms Brittany Trejo, said.

When their parents got an alert about the flash foods at 2am on Thursday, the family had only minutes to escape, Ms Trejo said, recounting what she had been told by her cousin Amber Smith, the children's 23-year-old mother.

In the few minutes that Ms Smith was able to get the children dressed, water had already begun to pour into their mobile home.

The family climbed on top of the trailer in the darkness to wait out the flood, Ms Trejo said, "but they were only up there for a very short time before they realised that their home was about to be swept away".

A flooded valley in Kentucky on July 29, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

Holding hands with the older children and hugging the younger ones tight, the family "floated" from the top of their trailer to a nearby tree, she said. There, they held onto one another, watching their home float away and shouting for help.

Still, the water rose higher. And "one by one", Ms Trejo said, the four children were pulled away from the tree by the current.

"The rage of the water took their children out of their hands," Ms Trejo said. After some eight hours of clutching the tree to stay alive, the parents were rescued by a stranger in a kayak.

"They were such loving, caring, well-behaved young children," Ms Trejo said. "They liked things that all children enjoy."

Construction equipment was used to clear mud from the roads after flooding in Hazard, Kentucky. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Worst flooding so far

Mr Beshear told reporters that the National Guard, the state police and other state agencies were helping with search-and-rescue efforts, which included about 50 aerial rescues and hundreds of rescues by boat.

Nearly 300 people had been rescued across the state, he said, about 100 of whom were taken to safety by aircraft.

Many who had survived the flooding were then endangered by the isolation that came in the aftermath. Roads were washed out or buried in mudslides, stranding residents, many of them older and in ill health, in flood-ravaged valleys without water or electricity.

According to PowerOutage.us, which aggregates data from utilities, about 20,000 customers were without power in the hardest-hit counties in Kentucky on Friday evening.

Residents being evacuated in Kentucky's Breathitt County on July 28, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

In the mountains of central Appalachia, flooding can be terrifyingly sudden, with water rushing down barren, mine-stripped hillsides or pouring down in summer thunderstorms.

Families who live along creeks in the hollows often have little warning and few escape routes, which is why floods in the region have been so deadly in the past.

But the flooding on Thursday was the worst in local memory.

"I've talked to several folks in the last couple of days who were 70, 80 years old, and none of them remember anything like this," said Mr Jeff Hawkins, who has lived for 52 years in a Letcher County hollow that is now lined with flood-wrecked buildings and half-submerged trucks.

A church flooded by the Troublesome Creek in Kentucky's Breathitt County. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Culture was swept away, too

The focus on Friday was on the cost in human lives, but the floodwaters also damaged irreplaceable repositories of eastern Kentucky culture.

The waters that rose in Whitesburg, a cultural centre of this part of Appalachia, engulfed the buildings belonging to Appalshop, a 53-year-old arts and education centre, flooding the radio studio and exhibition space and sending bits of archival material out onto Main Street.

In the little town of Hindman, in Knott County, the Appalachian School of Luthiery, where craftsmen learn the art of building dulcimers and other stringed instruments, was ruined, said Ms Christy Boyd, the director of development at the Appalachian Artisan Centre.

"There aren't a lot of dulcimer people anymore," Ms Boyd said. "So when you lose something, it's not just monetary; it can't be replaced because nobody's doing it."

A similar observation could be made about many of the little towns throughout central Appalachia, which had been slowly dying for decades before they were drowned in a sudden flood.

"We barely have anything, and to lose what you have," she said, trailing off.

Find out more about climate change and how it could affect you on the ST microsite here.