Why is eastern Kentucky so prone to flooding?

Between ice storms, flash floods, and December’s tornadoes, it’s been a wild year for weather across Kentucky.
Published: Aug. 3, 2022 at 6:20 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - Between ice storms, flash floods, and December’s tornadoes, it’s been a wild year for weather across Kentucky.

Experts said a number of factors make the commonwealth more prone to certain things like that happening, and it also leaves eastern Kentucky especially vulnerable to floods.

Some call this a 1,000-year flood, meaning there’s a .1% chance of it happening in a given year. WKYT Chief Meteorologist Chris Bailey said it may be even more rare than that. He and others said it was just so much rain, and it would have likely flooded other places, too. But not like this.

As the state geologist, a research professor, and director of the Kentucky Geological Survey, Dr. William Haneberg has been trying to put the eastern Kentucky flooding into perspective.

“We often talk about things being unprecedented, but I think this was an event that truly was,” Dr. Haneberg said.

Water again showed its power over a place whose topography, experts say, already make it more flood prone.

“You may hear people say, ‘Well why do people build in flood plains?’ It’s because in areas like a lot of parts of eastern Kentucky, there’s really no other choice,” Dr. Haneberg said.

Its steep terrain and narrow valleys mean it often doesn’t take as much rain to cause flooding, yet experts say the elevation in the mountains can create more rain. Plus, Kentucky’s geographical location also puts us on the map for more precipitation.

“We’re one of the few states that can get the extreme weather of every season. Our proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, which is open for business now, and the warmer waters down in the Gulf of Mexico have just been feeding a lot of extra moisture toward Kentucky,” Bailey said.

With all those existing factors, some eastern Kentucky officials also worry construction and development may not be helping matters.

“You don’t have that vegetation to hold that water like you always did in the past. It’s a combination of things…. We don’t typically see 10-12 inches of rain. We are getting more precipitation along with the commercial development we have, and we need to do a better job of understanding the long-term consequences of what we do along our watersheds,” Floyd County Judge-Executive Robert Williams said.

Bailey said the 2010s were the wettest decade on record across Kentucky. A state flood risk assessment from 2018 assumes flooding events will increase over time.

“We’re in a period of extreme weather across not only the country, here in Kentucky, but across the world as our planet continues to warm --and it is warming -- we’re going to see more extreme events,” Bailey said.

The Kentucky Geological Survey also said it’s possible that mining, especially surface mining, can impact the severity of flooding in the region. They said right now it’s still too soon to know if it had an effect in this event.

Experts believe the commonwealth may be seeing worse disasters more often. Data from the state’s latest hazard mitigation plan already shows that presidential disasters are being declared here more frequently. Based on the trends, the report concludes, Kentucky may expect an average of one to two disaster declarations per year for the foreseeable future.

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