Severe Kentucky flooding could become more common

The recent devastating floods that hit eastern Kentucky and south-west Virginia in the final days of July 2022, killing at least 33 people, could become a more frequent event, according to experts.

A report from JBA Risk Management said that the Kentucky floods are the latest in a series of severe weather events that have affected the US in recent weeks, following floods caused by sudden heavy downpours in Las Vegas and a flash flooding emergency in St Louis which left one man dead after he became trapped in his car by rapidly rising waters.

Similar floods were also experienced in Arizona and, at the time of writing, further flooding is forecast in Missouri. The rain followed drought conditions in many areas, where dry ground was unable to absorb heavy rain, exacerbating the situation.

The report quotes Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, noting that emergency responders who had worked in the area for 20 years had never seen water levels this high.

Based on findings from the US Geological Survey – such as 8-10 inches (203-254mm) of rainfall in a 24-hour period, Kentucky State geologist Bill Haneberg labelled the floods “extraordinary”. Other environmental scientists have pointed to the increasing moisture capacity of the atmosphere due to global warming as a reason why rainfall events are beginning to result in more drastic consequences.

Rain began falling on Kentucky from the morning of 26 July 2022, continuing to 28 July. Over 250mm was reported in some areas, with the Kentucky and North Fork Kentucky rivers overflowing into 29 July: the North Fork Kentucky River was reported as being above Major Flood Stage at Whitesburg, while the Kentucky River was above Moderate Flood Stage at Heidelberg and near Ravenna.

The gauge located at Jackson on the North Fork Kentucky River recorded a record crest of 43.47 feet (13.25m), at 2.30am on 29 July, while another gauge at Whitesburg recorded a 20.9 ft (6.4m) crest. The heavy flooding that resulted from this left over 24,000 people without power at the storm’s height, with mudslides damaging bridges, homes and vehicles.

JBA noted that flooding in central Appalachia can be terrifyingly sudden, with water rushing down barren, mine-stripped hillsides. Residents often have little warning and few escape routes, which is why floods in the region can be so deadly, noting that the widespread poverty which affects many of the worst-hit areas will only add to the challenges faced by communities. 

Added to this, it said, there is often a low take-up of flood insurance, especially as some of the affected areas have never flooded before.