At least 22 confirmed dead in massive WV flooding

The death toll continued to rise after Thursday’s devastating floods, with 22 people confirmed dead as of Friday evening and authorities worried that the number could keep rising.

“It’s been a long 24 hours, and the next 24 hours may not be any easier,” Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said at a Friday afternoon news conference. He put the number of those killed at 14, but authorities announced more deaths later.

Fifteen of the 22 confirmed deaths were in Greenbrier County, according to the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Five were in Kanawha County, and one each was in Jackson County and Ohio County.

Among the dead was Melissa Hess, 47. She called 911 operators around 4:30 p.m. Thursday, trapped as floodwater from Wills Creek, near Clendenin poured into her SUV, according to Kanawha Sheriff’s Sgt. Brian Humphreys. Thirteen minutes later, she told operators that the water was halfway up the windshield.

Emergency responders couldn’t get down Wills Creek Road to reach Hess, Humphreys said. They tried to make it to her from other directions, including via Interstate 79, but couldn’t. A 911 operator heard screaming before the call was disconnected around 5 p.m.

The other deaths in Kanawha County were a 64-year-old man who drowned and whose body was found along Jordan Creek Road, near Clendenin, and a hospice patient who died after emergency responders couldn’t reach her home because of high water, Humphreys said. Their names were not released.

Deputy Kanawha County Manager Andrew Gunnoe said the most recent deaths involved two apparent drowning victims found in their home on River View Way in Clendenin shortly after 8 p.m. Friday. At 5:20 p.m., a man living on Little Sandy Road in the Elkview area died of possible electrocution, reportedly while attempting to clean flood water from his home with a Shop Vac. The names of those victims were not released pending notification of next of kin.

The body of Edward McMillion, a 4-year-old boy who was swept away by high water in Ravenswood on Thursday, was found on Friday morning. In Wheeling, Emanual Williams, an 8-year-old boy, drowned in Big Wheeling Creek on Thursday after he was pulled downstream by the rushing water.

Details were not immediately available on the deaths in Greenbrier County.

Tomblin declared a state of emergency for 44 of the state’s 55 counties late Thursday evening, and authorized members of the West Virginia National Guard to help local first responders as they evaluated the situation on Friday.

The Elk River at Queen Shoals, in Kanawha County, set a record when it reached a height of more than 33 feet, said Dave Marsalek, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Charleston. The previous record there was 32 feet, set in 1888. Flood stage for the river there is 19 feet.

“The Elk is a mess right now,” Marsalek said Friday morning. The river at Queen Shoals had dropped under 24 feet by Friday afternoon.

Emergency officials agreed. C.W. Sigman, Kanawha County deputy emergency manager, said during a news conference Friday morning that first responders had just gained access to Clendenin.

“There’s a lot of just utter devastation in some areas,” Sigman said. “The homes are gone.”

Tomblin said more than 100 houses were destroyed or severely damaged. Besides northern Kanawha County, the governor said, the hardest-hit areas are White Sulphur Springs and Rainelle, in Greenbrier County, and Richwood, in Nicholas County.

Two major bridges in Kanawha County, between Dunbar and South Charleston and between Nitro and St. Albans, were closed for several hours early Friday after a barge got loose and struck them. They were reopened Friday morning after state Department of Transportation inspectors deemed them safe.

White Sulphur Springs got 9.17 inches of rain over the past 48 hours, NWS meteorologist Andrew Beavers said, the most in the state.

As of Friday evening, U.S. 119 remained closed near Herbert Hoover High School and near the Clendenin exit of Interstate 79 in Kanawha County, according to the DOT. Other closed roads included W.Va. 82, from Cowen to Birch River in Webster County, W.Va. 20 at Webster Springs, W.Va. 41 at the Fayette-Nicholas county line, W.Va. 20 at Rainelle in Greenbrier County, W.Va. 39, from Mill Point to Richwood in Nicholas County, U.S. 60, from Sam Black to Rainelle in Greenbrier County, and W.Va. 92 at the Greenbrier-Pocahontas county line.

Kanawha County emergency officials and State Police urged residents not to travel in flood-ravaged areas, and asked people making non-emergency 911 calls to be patient.

Officials said Friday morning that many emergency responders had been working for more than 24 hours straight.

In Webster County, 12 water rescues were performed overnight Thursday, according to Richard Rose, county emergency manager. He said they included “everything from vehicles to campers to boats to homes knocked off the foundation and numerous propane tanks floating down the river.” It was difficult to assess damage, he said, partly because some areas were inaccessible and partly because internet and cellphone service is out throughout the county.

Sgt. P.J. Cochran, of the Summers County Sheriff’s Department, said two firefighters had to be rescued after their raft flipped at about 2:30 a.m. Friday.

Roger Bryant, director of the Logan County Office of Emergency Management, said Logan County escaped damage but emergency responders from the county assisted Clay County, which was hit hard. He said his team alone evacuated six people and six dogs. He said the Clay County 911 center was flooded by two feet of water and Nicholas County had to dispatch calls for the county.

More than 21,000 Appalachian Power customers, including more than 6,500 in Kanawha County, were without power as of 6 p.m. Friday, according to the company’s website. Appalachian Power said in a statement Friday afternoon that the company estimated restoring power could take “well into the weekend” for some areas, and crews were unable to access substations in Clendenin and in Fayette County’s Brackens Creek because of flooding.

Mon Power had more than 26,000 customers without power Friday evening, according to its website; of those customers, more than half were in Greenbrier County.

West Virginia American Water said at noon Friday that about 3,000 Kanawha County customers were without water, along with about 500 in Fayette County and about 50 in Boone County.

“Our crews are working around the clock to respond to water emergencies, but we anticipate much-longer-than-usual restoration times due to many areas being completely inaccessible,” Jeff McIntyre, the water company’s president, said in a news release.

The water company’s main office in Charleston was without power, and several booster stations were running on generators, according to the release.

Several groups and agencies have set up donation drives for flood victims. The United Way of Central West Virginia set up an emergency fund for people to donate to, either by contacting the United Way office or visiting www.unitedwaycwv.org.

Charleston city officials, for a second day, postponed the opening of their new splash pad at Magic Island. Many of the city’s FestivALL activities went on as planned, but cruises on the River Queen sternwheeler were canceled and the Live on the Levee concert Friday night was moved to Kanawha Boulevard, since Haddad Riverfront Park was under water.

Staff writers Phil Kabler, Jennifer Gardner and Ken Ward Jr. contributed to this report.

Reach Erin Beck at erin.beck@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5163 or follow @erinbeckwv on Twitter. Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1240 or follow @LoriKerseyWV on Twitter.

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