Rains that swiftly flooded a remote corner of Southwest Virginia washed out roads, tore homes from their foundations and left people scrambling to find loved ones in areas where phone service was knocked out completely.
Authorities feared the worst on Wednesday as they were inundated with calls from people who said they were unable to reach family members, leaving a total of 44 people unaccounted for, said Billy Chrimes, a search and rescue specialist with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. But by noon Thursday, everyone had been located.
“We walk into it as a worst-case scenario. We plan for the worst, we hope for the best, and once again, that's been the case," Chrimes said.
First responders in Buchanan County began receiving reports of rising water and damage Tuesday night after a torrential rainstorm swamped the mountainous area. Several communities in the Virginia county that borders West Virginia and Kentucky were affected.
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Residents said they were stunned by the dramatic flooding, which caused mudslides that blocked roads, knocked out power and left many people without phone service.
“We gathered at my house and we said if it got any higher that we were just going to start heading up in the mountains to try to get safe, but luckily, thank God, we didn’t have to,” Deana Kimbrough told WCYB-TV.
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Seth Owens told the station he was among people who sought refuge at a post office and witnessed houses washing away.
“The next thing you know, the house is floating on down through there. … Two of the houses washed off,” he said.
In Whitewood, an unincorporated community with a population of about 500, mud left from the flooding was 1 to 2 feet deep in some places. At least one bridge had collapsed, and one home appeared to have been pulled from its foundation and carried across the street, where it was perched on top of a car Thursday morning.
Authorities said only one injury was reported, and that was a snake bite. Three roads were closed Thursday, including Route 715, which was expected to remain closed indefinitely because of a bridge that was damaged by the flooding.
Chrimes said one of the biggest challenges for rescue crews was the large geographic area that was affected. He said crews searched 30 miles and more than 400 structures.
“We’ve seen everything from the landslides to just flooded roads, where the road‘s been completely washed away, and so that’s presented challenges with getting our teams in and making access,” he said.
“We have the mountains, not a lot of place for the water to go."
Sheriff John McClanahan said that the floodwaters are receding and the county is working with the Virginia Department of Transportation crews to assess damages to homes and to remove debris and mud from the roadways to get them reopened.
Buchanan County also suffered serious flooding damage last year, when the remnants of a hurricane hit the area in August, washing away homes and leaving one person dead.
This week's flooding was less severe but more widespread, authorities said at the news conference.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin declared a state of emergency to aid with the response and recovery efforts.
“As we continue to assess the situation, I want to thank our first responders and the personnel on the ground for providing assistance with our ongoing operations in Buchanan County. While rescue and recovery continues, please join me in prayer as we lift up our fellow Virginians impacted by this tragedy,” Youngkin said in a statement.
Heavy thunderstorms also led to flash flooding Tuesday evening along the Little Pigeon River in eastern Tennessee that prompted the evacuation of more than 400 people from a campground. No injuries were reported in the Tennessee flooding, but vehicles and debris from the Greenbrier Campground were washed downstream by floodwaters, Sevier County Assistant Mayor Perrin Anderson told news outlets.