Deadly Kentucky flooding crushes records

Kentucky flooding: Wide brown stream between green hills, with buildings and roads swamped.
View larger. | Bird’s-eye view of severe flooding in Whitesburg, Kentucky on Thursday, July 28, 2022. A river gauge along the North Fork Kentucky River in Whitesburg measured a 20-foot water level increase in 10 hours. A weather station recorded the all-time highest water level of 21 feet around 1 p.m. yesterday in Whitesburg, crushing the old record of 14.7 feet set in 1957. Read more about this week’s devasting Kentucky flooding below. Image via Billy Bowling.

Kentucky flooding brings death and destruction

Record-breaking flooding devastated small mountain communities in Kentucky and Virginia today (July 28, 2022) after heavy thunderstorms locked in on the region. According to Chris Johnson from Fox 56 Weather, in nine hours, 10-12 inches of rain fell over very steep terrain. It filled the narrow valleys with rushing water, as creeks rose. First responders rescued dozens of people from the rising floodwaters. But hundreds more remained trapped through the day. As of Friday (July 29, 2022), officials reported 16 deaths, including four young children from the same family. Kentucky’s governor, Andy Beshear, said that he expected double-digit deaths, calling the event:

One of the worst, most devastating flooding events in Kentucky’s history.

Perry County (population 26,266) and the town of Hazard (population 4,974) were the worst-hit areas. Video on Thursday morning showed that many small towns were wiped completely off the map.

During the day on Thursday, people were rescued from their roofs surrounded by 20-plus feet of water. According to the governor’s office, it is still unknown exactly how many people are still missing or in need of rescue. Landslides and high water are blocking many roads, limiting access to the worst-hit areas.

Floodwaters swept homes off their foundations and transported them downstream. Cars and vehicles piled up against trees miles away from their original locations. Many residents and meteorologists from the region called it complete devastation.

Kentucky flood surpasses records

A river gauge along the North Fork Kentucky River in Whitesburg measured a 20-foot water level increase in 10 hours. A weather station recorded the all-time highest water level of 21 feet around 1 pm in Whitesburg, crushing the old record of 14.7 feet set in 1957. The actual river crest may have been higher, but because of a data loss at the station, measurements stopped at the 21-foot mark. Floodwaters completely inundated downtown, forcing residents to seek higher ground. And flooding completely submerged the elementary school for hours.

An eyewitness account

Storm chaser and photographer Billy Bowling was on the scene of the flooding on Thursday afternoon. Bowling is a Virginia native and has seen many floods in this region of the Appalachians. Bowling said that the flooding in Whitesburg:

… touched nearly every building in the city.

He said the water was widespread and deeper than any event he had previously witnessed. Bowling described the scene:

Water enveloped 80% of the buildings in Whitesburg [population 2,215]. Homes by the river were submerged to the very top of the roofs, and the high school was completely underwater to the roof. It was devastation at a scale that I’ve never seen in the region before. Instead of one small town, it was an entire city completely shut off from the world.

Bowling also witnessed several water rescues with people trapped in cars, including one car that emerged only after having been underwater for many hours. Bowling said:

The rescuers didn’t even know it was there. By the time they realized the car was trapped, it had turned into a body recovery.

The source of the Kentucky flooding

Torrential thunderstorms developed late on Wednesday night along a stationary front in eastern Kentucky and western Virginia. This frontal system provided a focal point for moisture and lift along the mountains. Deep tropical moisture streamed in from the south and was squeezed out of the atmosphere along the front. Once the storms developed, they remained nearly stationary for 12 hours.

Some weather stations in the Kentucky mesonet, a network of rain-measuring gauges across the state, reported 10.4 inches of total precipitation. However, meteorologists said that rainfall was likely higher in some areas. According to radar estimates, a foot or more of rainfall fell in some places.

Meteorologists at the National Weather Service (NWS) issued Flash Flood Emergencies as the flooding began. These warnings are the most serious that the NWS uses in flooding scenarios. They are reserved for events with catastrophic impacts. When the alerts sounded through the emergency broadcast system, people scrambled to find higher ground. Storm chasers on the scene said that the quick work by the NWS to recognize the situation and issue warnings likely saved many lives.

A dangerous week for flooding in the US

The flooding in Kentucky follows an intense week of heavy rainfall across the country. The same weather system dumped 12 to 14 inches of rainfall in Missouri, leading to widespread damage and water rescues. St. Louis measured a single-day rainfall record in just a few hours. Flash flooding also occurred in Colorado, Arizona and Utah on Thursday. And forecasters call for more flooding in the coming week.

Meteorologists expect heavy rain to continue in Kentucky and far western Virginia on Friday and Saturday. The stubborn frontal system will bring more chances for slow-moving thunderstorms, which could drop an additional two to four inches of rain. The frontal system will also remain through the beginning of August, although forecasts remain uncertain about the exact placement of the heaviest rain.

Bottom line: Record-breaking flooding devastated parts of Kentucky as 10 to 12 inches of rain fell. The Kentucky flooding is one of the most devastating flooding events in the state’s history.

Read more: New NASA video on flood prediction

July 28, 2022

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