20 dead in West Virginia floods, focus on search and rescue

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Anna May Watson hugs a relative Anna May Watson, right, hugs a relative as they clean up from severe flooding in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., Friday, June 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The death toll from floodwaters that ravaged West Virginia has climbed to 20 and officials worry more will be found as they begin to clear the rubble.

Chris Stadelman, chief of staff for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, said 14 deaths have been confirmed by the state medical examiner. But local sheriffs and rescue workers across the state confirmed others not yet included in the state’s official tally.

Greenbrier County was one of the hardest hit areas. Sheriff Jan Cahill said at least 13 were killed there.

Three were killed in Kanawha County and one each in Ohio and Jackson counties. Stadelman said at least 100 homes were destroyed.

John Manchester, mayor of the hard-hit town of Lewisburg in Greenbrier County, said a stretch of highway was completely washed away. Houses were thrown from their foundations and the rubble lines creek beds all over the county.

Rescue crews are braving thick mud and oppressive humidity to search for those still unaccounted for.

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The deaths included an eight-year-old boy and a four-year-old boy who were swept away in rushing creek waters in different counties, authorities said. Greenbrier County Sheriff Jan Cahill described “complete chaos” in his county, one of the hardest hit.

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

Currently 200 National Guardsmen were assisting in eight counties, helping local rescue 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.

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

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.

Eric Blackshire was one of the stranded at Crossings Mall, a mix of restaurants, stores and a hotel in Elkview, which is about 15 miles northeast of Charleston. Some had to sleep in their cars or at businesses overnight. Blackshire opted for a hotel room.

“It was kind of like a hurricane party. I guess you could call it a flood party. There were lots of beers being drank last night,” he told The Associated Press.

He was able to get to safety Friday when Pinch Volunteer Fire Department firefighters used a rope to guide people down a hillside. About 50 people had been rescued by about midday.

Crews were working to build a gravel road on the backside of the shopping plaza to help with the rescues.

An area near the West Virginia-Virginia border received at least nine inches of rain while other parts of the state had three to five 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.

“While it appears the active phase of this event will end or tomorrow, there will be an enormous amount of recovery work,” the governor said.

Some of the heaviest rainfall was in Greenbrier County, where The Greenbrier luxury resort and golf course is nestled in the mountains. The course, overrun by floodwaters, is scheduled to host a PGA tour event from July 4-10.

“It’s like nothing I’ve seen,” owner Jim Justice, a Democratic candidate for governor, 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 eight-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. Neighbors, alerted by the sound of the family’s screams, tried to help save the boy but were also unable to reach him.

The governor didn’t release details on the other deaths.

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.

Story by The Associated Press.