Overnight storms caused widespread power outages and infrastructure damage, with some homes being swept off their foundations in the valley community of Pilgrim’s Knob. Responding to the situation, Buchanan County officials received assistance from neighboring fire departments to help with search and rescue efforts.
The Buchanan County Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday that 44 people were “unaccounted for” but noted that does not mean they are missing.
Everyone has been found after reports of more than 40 people missing in a rural Virginia county inundated by a torrential downpour that tore homes from their foundations and damaged roads and bridges.
Crews worked overnight and through the morning in the flooded areas to help locate the 44 people who had been reported missing, Buchanan County Sheriff Chief Deputy Eric Breeding said in a news conference Thursday.
Six inches of rain in just hours Tuesday caused extensive damage in western Virginia county, CNN meteorologist Robert Shackelford said. “Combined with the mountainous area, rainfall can collect quickly, and dangerous runoff occurs,” he said.
The “monumental” search effort for missing persons in Buchanan County covered about 30 miles and 400 structures, Virginia Department of Emergency Management search and rescue specialist Billy Chrimes said.
The state used six teams to assist, according to Chimes. Multiple search operations are ongoing, Chrimes said, “just to make sure that we don’t have anybody else out there.” He added that those search efforts are expected to be wrapped up by Thursday afternoon.
The storm was swift and overwhelming, with widespread flooding and road closures reported in just a few hours. Radar estimates indicate 6 inches of rain fell in about four hours starting at 8 p.m. Tuesday, corresponding with a rain event with a 1-in-1,000 chance of happening in a given year.
“We were sitting at this post office over here, and the next thing you know, the house is floating down there. We thought it was going to wash off. Two of the houses washed off,” resident Seth Owens told CNN affiliate WCYB.
Virginia’s governor declared a state of emergency to help with recovery efforts.
As searches continue, the forecast for Thursday and Friday calls for sun, with high temperatures in the lower to mid-80s, ahead of a slight chance of rain Saturday that increases Sunday and Monday, according to the National Weather Service.
The damaging storm was among several that lingered Tuesday night over the county and parts of Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia.
This region of Appalachia is among those most prone to flash flooding in the country. Many areas are also most at risk because of the growing threat of heavy rain, according to a CNN analysis of a report from a nonprofit climate last year’s research group, First Street Foundation.
The climate crisis also exacerbates flash flooding by increasing the rainfall rate or the amount of rain that falls in a short period. A warmer atmosphere can hold more water, making extreme rainfall events more likely. Driveways ‘fell down the mountain.’
The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning for Buchanan County around 8:30 p.m. Tuesday. About two hours later, local officials reported widespread flooding and road closures. Dominick Fragoso, who lives in Whitewood, said the water rose to his kneecaps.
The storm system also hit the Greenbrier Campground in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where more than 400 people were evacuated Wednesday after more than 8 inches of rain fell, said Perrin Anderson, the assistant mayor for governmental affairs in Sevier County.
“Debris and vehicles washed downstream in the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River from the campground,” Anderson said.
More than 100 homes were damaged in southwestern Virginia, said Billy Chrimes, a search and rescue specialist with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. “It’s gonna take time for the access to be restored so we can get in,” Chrimes said.
Roads were blocked by landslides, and approaches to bridges were washed out in the storm, he added.