At least 23 dead in West Virginia floods, official says

At least 23 people have died from flooding in West Virginia, and officials fear that number will continue to climb.

Earlier Friday, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin told a news conference that at least 14 people had died. However, a spokesman for the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security confirmed the high death toll Friday afternon.

“Our focus remains on search and rescue,” Tomblin said, later adding: “It’s been a long 24 hours and the next 24 hours may not be much easier.”

Earlier Friday, Greenbrier County Sheriff Jan Cahill described “complete chaos” in his county, which appeared to be the hardest hit.

“Roads destroyed, bridges out, homes burned down, washed off foundations,” he told the Associated Press. “Multiple sections of highway just missing. Pavement just peeled off like a banana. I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Cahill said at least 13 people were killed in Greenbrier County. At least three were killed in Kanawha County and one each in Ohio and Jackson counties. Among those confirmed dead were an 8-year-old boy and a 4-year-old boy who were swept away in different counties, authorities said Friday. 

Chris Stadelman, Tomblin’s chief of staff. said at least 100 homes were destroyed and some areas would be “looking at flooding that’s going to be the worst in 100 years.” Tens of thousands of people were without power at the peak of the storm.

“Today’s just an accountability mission, trying to verify where everybody’s at and follow up on missing person tips,” Cahill 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.”

Currently 200 National Guardsmen were assisting in eight counties, helping local crews with swift water rescues, search and extraction efforts and health and welfare checks. The governor declared a state of emergency in 44 of 54 counties and authorized up to 500 soldiers to assist.

The governor said he had planned to fly around the hard-hit areas, but wasn’t able to because all state aircraft were being used for rescues.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said in a news release Friday the teams will participate in joint preliminary damage assessments with the state and local officials and the U.S. Small Business Administration.

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.

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 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 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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