At least 14 dead in West Virginia floods, sheriff describes 'complete chaos'
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A deluge of 9 inches of rain on parts of West Virginia destroyed or damaged more than 100 homes, knocked out power to tens of thousands of homes and businesses and killed 14 people, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said Friday.
About 500 people were stranded overnight in a shopping center when a bridge washed out, and dozens of other people had to be plucked off rooftops or rescued as waters quickly rose during the storm.
"Our focus remains on search and rescue," the governor said. He added: "It's been a long 24 hours and the next 24 hours may not be much easier."
The deaths included an 8-year-old boy and a 4-year-old boy who were swept away in different counties, authorities said. Greenbrier County Sheriff Jan Cahill described "complete chaos" in his county, which was one of the hardest hit.
"Roads destroyed, bridges out, homes burned down, washed off foundations," he said. "Multiple sections of highway just missing. Pavement just peeled off like a banana. I've never seen anything like that."
Water rescue teams were searching devastated areas.
"Today's just an accountability mission, trying to verify where everybody's at and follow up on missing person tips," he said. "It's really hard to navigate around because there's just a ton of debris. We've even had rescuers that had to be rescued."
The rains submerged homes and cars in dirty brown water and chewed up roads.
Some areas are "probably looking at flooding that's going to be the worst in 100 years," the governor's spokesman Chris Stadelman said.
Eric Blackshire was one of the stranded at Crossings Mall, a mix of restaurants, stores and a hotel in Elkview, which is about 15 miles northeast of Charleston. Some had to sleep in their cars or at businesses overnight. Blackshire opted for a hotel room.
"It was kind of like a hurricane party. I guess you could call it a flood party. There were lots of beers being drank last night," he told The Associated Press.
He was able to get to safety Friday when Pinch Volunteer Fire Department firefighters used a rope to guide people down a hillside. About 50 people had been rescued so far.
Kanawha County Sheriff's Office spokesman Sgt. Brian Humphreys said a better solution was needed: "That's going to require, I think, some engineering efforts" — perhaps a temporary bridge.
An area near the West Virginia-Virginia border received at least 9 inches of rain while other parts of the state had 3 to 5 inches, National Weather Service hydrologist John Sikora said. While most of the rain had tapered off Friday, there were still scattered showers, thunderstorms and river flood warnings.
Kanawha County officials reported at least 70 water rescues. The Republican governor said rescue workers have risked their own lives to rescue people stranded on rooftops and in overflowing rivers. In Richwood, state police and local responders rescued a woman trapped in her car with water rising up to her neck, he said.
Some of the heaviest rainfall was in Greenbrier County. At The Greenbrier, a luxury resort nestled in the mountains, the golf course was overrun by rushing waters. The course is scheduled to host a PGA tour event, The Greenbrier Classic, from July 4-10.
"It's like nothing I've seen," owner Jim Justice, a Democratic candidate for governor, said in a statement. "But our focus right now isn't on the property, golf course or anything else. We're praying for the people and doing everything we can to get them the help they need."
Professional golfer Bubba Watson was apparently visiting the resort and tweeted photos of entire holes underwater: "Prayers for @The_Greenbrier & surrounding areas. We are without power & it's still raining. Never seen this much rain! #WestVirginiaBeSafe."
The governor issued a state of emergency on Thursday for 44 counties in the state.
The body of 8-year-old Emanual Williams — known as "Manny" — was recovered after he fell into Big Wheeling Creek on Thursday, said Harry Croft, pastor at Marwin Church of the Nazarene at Wheeling.
Croft said the mother told him that she was walking across the creek with her son and daughter because Manny wanted to catch crawdads. One of the children slipped and the mother grabbed both the boy and his sister in the swift current.
"She lost her grip on Manny," the pastor said.
The 4-year-old boy was found about a quarter mile from where he fell into a creek, which usually runs about ankle deep but rose to about 6 feet deep when Jackson County was pounded with 9 inches of rain in 16 hours.
Bob Bibbee with the Ravenswood Fire Department said the boy was outside with his grandfather, who jumped in after the boy but the water was rushing too quickly. Neighbors, alerted by the sound of the family's screams, tried to help save the boy but were also unable to reach him.
Across the state line, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency in Alleghany County and Covington. Three emergency workers were injured during a water rescue in Alleghany County, officials said.
Associated Press writer Rebecca Reynolds Yonker in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this report.