CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Heavy rains that pummeled West Virginia left at least 23 people dead, and authorities said Saturday that an unknown number of people in the hardest-hit county remained unaccounted for.
Most of the dead and all of the missing, officials believe, were in the county of Greenbrier — home of the renowned golf resort of the same name.
“The reports we got this morning are that Greenbrier County may still have some folks unaccounted for. It does not appear there are unaccounted for people in other counties, but it’s still a somewhat fluid situation,” said Chris Stadelman, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s chief of staff.
Stadelman said there were still “lots of folks in shelters” and that state would apply for federal disaster funds. Scores of homes were damaged.
In one bizarre twist, a woman sustained burns over two-thirds of her body after her deluged house blew up. Belinda Scott of White Sulphur Springs called her husband Ronnie and told him their house was filling up with water. She fled to the attic and waited. She smelled natural gas. Then, the house exploded.
Belinda Scott was able to break a vent and get out onto a porch, then make it onto a tree, which she clung to for hours before being rescued by state police, her husband told The Associated Press.
“My wife was out there four and a half hours hanging in a tree with a house burning right beside her, flood waters running all around her,” said Scott.
About 500 people were stranded overnight in a shopping center when a bridge washed out, and dozens of other people had to be plucked off rooftops or rescued from their cars.
Greenbrier County Sheriff Jan Cahill described “complete chaos” in his county.
“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.”
The state Division of Homeland Security reported 15 people killed in Greenbrier County and rescue efforts continue. Other deaths were reported in Kanawha, Jackson and Ohio counties.
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.
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. Crews were working to build a gravel road on the backside of the shopping plaza.
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.
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 Federal Emergency Management Agency said it was sending teams to help with damage assessments.