WEST VIRGINIA – Massive floods sent raging waters across parts of West Virginia, killing at least 26 people and leaving hundreds stranded, officials said.
It is the deadliest U.S. flash flooding event since May 2010, according to CNN meteorologist Allison Chinchar. In 2010, flooding killed 27 people in Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi.
West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced 14 deaths at a news conference Friday afternoon, with the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management reporting hours later a total of 23 dead.
Early Saturday, the Kanawha County Sheriff’s Office said three people died overnight.
Trees and power lines fell as heavy rains sent creeks and rivers over their banks late Thursday and early Friday, leaving many stranded residents waiting to be rescued.
The governor declared a state of emergency Thursday night in 44 counties, covering most of the state. Eleven counties, located in the northern and eastern panhandles, were not on the list.
Tomblin activated 200 National Guard members to assist in eight counties and has authorization for as many as 300 more to help with the rescue and response efforts, the governor’s office said Friday.
“Together with the National Guard, our first responders, local emergency management officials and firefighters from across the state have been working around the clock, and we are deeply appreciative of their efforts,” Tomblin said in the statement.
A 4-year-old boy was washed away by floodwaters in Jackson County, officials said. The child was playing with his sister behind their home when he fell into a stream that had instantly turned into a rushing current after the relentless storms. An 8-year old boy from Ravenswood in Jackson County was also killed in the violent storm.
Severe damage to homes and infrastructure can be seen throughout the state, residents said. At one point during the height of Thursday’s storm, there were 64 active emergency calls in Kanawha County, according to county spokeswoman Brooke Hylbert.
A 1,000-year flood
The high terrain along rivers is exacerbating the flooding, meteorologists said.
Weather radar estimates show that more than 10 inches of rain have fallen in portions of Greenbrier County. There is a one in 1,000 chance of this type of rainfall happening in any given year, according to the National Weather Service.
In Kanawha County, which includes the capital of Charleston, the Elkview River crested at 33.37 feet Friday morning, meteorologists said.
The river rose more than 27 feet from Thursday afternoon to Friday morning, the highest crest since record-keeping began more than 125 years ago, according to the weather service.
500 stranded at a mall for more than a day
In that same county, nearly 500 people were stranded at the Elkview Crossings Mall in Elkview for more than 24 hours starting on Thursday, when rain washed out an access road, officials said.
By Friday night, emergency workers had constructed a temporary gravel road to get all the people who were stranded by flood waters to exit, according to the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
Homes washed away
Thursday night unfolded like a horrific movie for 26-year-old Chad Agner of White Sulphur Springs, in Greenbrier County in the southern part of the state.
“The flooding looked like the ocean. There were these big waves,” Agner said.
As the rain intensified, Agner, who was planning to grab dinner with a friend, decided to head to his apartment instead, only to find his neighbor submerged in knee-deep water.
“The water was so high,” Agner said. He decided against going inside his apartment to retrieve his belongings.
Agner said he saw the flood sweeping away homes and cars before his eyes.
“The house in front of where my apartment used to be is turned over. Some houses are totally gone,” he told CNN. “My apartment is gone.”
Other residents of White Sulphur Springs said the floods launched a home off its foundation and down Howard’s Creek.
Helpless witnesses said the house caught fire and was burning as it floated down the stream, which runs through the town.
Golf resort under water
Also in White Sulphur Springs, the storms severely impacted The Greenbrier, a luxury resort set to host the PGA Tour’s Greenbrier Classic in July.
Professional PGA golfer Bubba Watson, who was at the resort when the storms hit, shared a photo and video on his Twitter account showing the grounds covered in fast-moving brown water.
Because of “widespread damage” from the heavy flooding, the resort will be closed until further notice, The Greenbrier announced on Twitter.
Resort owner Jim Justice released a statement saying that their focus is on helping the people, not “the property, the golf course, or anything else.”