Death toll rises to 23 in West Virginia floods, governor says

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Full credit: West Virginia Department of Transportation

(CNN) — As heavy thunderstorms sent massive floods sweeping across West Virginia, at least 23 people died in the raging waters, state and federal officials said Friday.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced 14 deaths at a news conference early in the afternoon. By Friday night, the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management had increased the death toll to 23.

Trees and power lines fell as heavy rains sent creeks and rivers out of their banks late Thursday and early Friday, leaving many stranded residents waiting to be rescued.

Forty-four counties declared a state of emergency Thursday night, primarily in the southeastern part of West Virginia. Elkview, Clendenin and Frame have been hit the hardest by the flooding, officials said.

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 rapid floodwaters in Jackson County, officials said. The child was playing with his sister behind their home when he fell into what a stream that had instantly turned into a rushing current after the relentless storms. An 8-year old boy from Ravenswood 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 the 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 in southeastern West Virginia are 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 1 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 National Weather Service.

Stranded at a shopping mall

The rain washed out an access road at Elkview Crossings Mall, leaving nearly 200 people stranded when a bridge that connects the shopping plaza to the road collapsed under the downpour, residents said.

The National Guard was building a temporary bridge to help expedite the rescue mission at the mall.

Homes washed away

Thursday night unfolded like a horrific movie for 26-year-old Chad Agner of White Sulphur Springs, in the southern part of the state.

“The flooding looked like the ocean. There were these big waves,” Agner said.

As the rain intensified, Anger, 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 luxury Greenbrier resort, which is 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.”