Photo of flooding via NWS Jackson, KY on Twitter.
Photo of flooding via NWS Jackson, KY on Twitter.

Heat hits Kentucky, complicating recovery from deadly flash floods

Intense flash floods across Kentucky have killed at least 37 people, Gov. Andy Beshear announced Monday afternoon. Now, residents are left contending with intense heat, as they begin the process of recovery. 

Heavy rains across eastern Kentucky decimated homes, bridges, and roads through Tuesday according to the National Weather Service. In some of the state’s eastern counties, rainfall of up to two inches per hour caused overflowing of waterways and flash flooding. 

More than 9 inches of rain fell, carving rivers through rural towns and prompting Kentucky Gov. Beshear to declare a state of emergency on July 28. In a stable climate, eastern Kentucky can expect to receive that much rain in 24 hours only once in a thousand years.

Of course, the climate is no longer stable. 

“In many parts of the world, it’s raining even harder now,” Bob Henson, a meteorologist and journalist with Yale Climate Connections, told Currently. “The heaviest short term rainfalls are tending to rise in many parts of the world, including the United States.”

As of Thursday, over 3000 people were still without power across the state, significantly down from over 22 thousand last week. For those who are displaced or still without power, highs in the upper 80 degrees F and low 90 degrees F, is creating miserable conditions. And, this suffocating heat will only further hamper rescue efforts; warm air holds more water, increasing the limit for extreme precipitation and exacerbating further flash flooding.

The governor said that the death toll is expected to rise, as other known bodies continue to be found. Search and rescue teams are still looking for several missing people. More than 1,300 people have been rescued by boat and aircraft since the flooding began.

The flooding in Kentucky caused mudslides, washed away houses and forced creeks, streams and rivers to overflow, displacing thousands of Kentuckians. Water and roadway infrastructure were knocked out, with 22 water systems operating in a limited capacity and more than 60,000 water service connections left either without water or under a boil advisory. Cell service was knocked out along with water and roadway infrastructure. The floodwater has also washed away bridges, leaving many vulnerable communities isolated.

Kentucky isn’t alone. Last week, St. Louis received its rainiest day in history — more than 8 inches in just 7 hours — another 1-in-1000 year rainstorm.

Meanwhile, heavy rains in Colorado over recent wildfire burn scars have also triggered flash flooding, and St. Louis received even more rain on Thursday.

The climate crisis continues to fuel more extreme weather events, with climate change-driven extreme precipitation increasing over the past 100 years. 

“Extreme rains in short periods are certainly becoming more extreme in many places, and are a well-known consequence of climate change,” Henson said. 

Flash floods, though, aren’t necessarily becoming more common due to climate change, as flooding doesn’t directly correlate to  extreme rainfall. But, flash floods are becoming more intense. A 2021 paper in Nature found that — while the number of flash floods remained fairly constant — extreme floods tended to be increasing, while moderate flash floods were on the decline. 

“To get a flood — especially a flash flood — it’s a combination of rainfall rate, landscape, and how saturated the ground is,” Henson said. “Rugged terrains, like in eastern Kentucky, tend to make floods worse by channeling the water in unhelpful ways.”

Flash floods are also growing shorter and more dramatic, which causes roughly the same amount of property damage but makes them much more dangerous for people who have little warning before their towns are inundated.

Here is a Southerly thread with mutual aid links in Kentucky and local reporting on how climate change-fueled extreme weather is impacting Appalachia.

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