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Toll Rises In Tennessee As Floodwaters Recede

Michael Bunch wades on a flooded downtown sidewalk Monday in Nashville. More than 13 inches of rainfall fell over two days, more than doubling the previous record of 6.68 inches and leaving at least 18 dead in the state and thousands displaced.
Rusty Russell
Getty Images
Michael Bunch wades on a flooded downtown sidewalk Monday in Nashville. More than 13 inches of rainfall fell over two days, more than doubling the previous record of 6.68 inches and leaving at least 18 dead in the state and thousands displaced.

Rescuers feared even more bodies would emerge as muddy floodwaters ebb from torrential weekend rains that swamped Nashville, much of Tennessee and two neighboring states, leaving at least 29 dead.

The Cumberland River that has submerged parts of Music City's historic downtown began to recede Tuesday after being swollen by heavy rain and the flooding creeks that feed into it.

Residents and authorities know they'll find widespread property damage in inundated areas, but dread even more devastating discoveries.


"Those in houses that have been flooded and some of those more remote areas, do we suspect we will find more people? Probably so," Nashville Fire Chief Kim Lawson said. "We certainly hope that it's not a large number."

Rescue And Recovery

Thousands of people have fled the rising water and hundreds have been rescued by boat and canoe, but as the floodwaters began to recede, bodies were recovered from homes, a yard, even a wooded area outside a Nashville supermarket.

An elderly man and his wife apparently were on their way to church when their car was swept away; they were found late Monday in the floodwaters behind a grocery store, reported Blake Farmer of member station WPLN.

By Tuesday, the flash floods were blamed in the deaths of 18 people in Tennessee alone, including 10 in Nashville.


The weekend storms also killed six people in Mississippi and four in Kentucky, including one man whose truck ran off the road and into a flooded creek. One person was killed by a tornado in western Tennessee.

Rescue operations of stranded residents were winding down in Nashville on Tuesday. It remained unclear how many people were still reported missing. Communications and power had been cut in several areas of Nashville and outlying counties, and authorities were requesting that residents alert them if they believed someone to be missing.

Confronted With Muddy Debris

In one neighborhood west of Nashville, residents scoured through debris, trying to determine how much they've lost.

Luke Oakman finally got a look at the room he and his wife designed for their 11-month-old daughter after the family fled their Bellevue home Sunday. It was ruined. Baby toys and books sat on a mud-coated floor. The baby's wooden bed leaned back against a wall as a rocking chair was propped up by the child's dresser that had been knocked over.

"I broke down when I saw that," the 32-year-old lab worker said Tuesday.

In Nashville, the Cumberland River also deluged some of the city's most important revenue sources: the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center, whose 1,500 guests were whisked to a shelter; the adjacent Opry Mills Mall; even the Grand Ole Opry House, considered by many to be the heart of country music.

Floodwaters also edged into areas of downtown, damaging the Country Music Hall of Fame and LP Field where the Tennessee Titans play, though the Ryman Auditorium — the longtime former home of the Grand Ole Opry — appeared to be OK. It was not immediately known how much damage the Hall of Fame or LP Field had suffered.

Electricity Out; Election Delayed

Restaurant and bars clustered on a downtown street were closed Tuesday because of the power outage. Bar manager Susan Zoesch said the closure would be hardest on servers who rely on tips.

"We're trying to figure out what we can do for them if we're going to be shut down for a while," Zoesch said.

Carly Horvat, 29, lives in a downtown condo and ventured out with a few friends to look at damage Monday night.

"I have never heard the city so quiet," Horvat said. "Usually, you hear whooping and hollering from Broadway."

At Big River Grill in downtown Nashville, David Ellis had spent two days trying to pump out the cellar, where water from the Cumberland River was flowing in faster than it'd been going out.

"The basement is done — it's toast right now," Ellis told WPLN's Farmer. "The switchgear, electrical gear, it's all underwater."

The flooding also prompted election officials to delay the city's local primary, which had been set for Tuesday.

State Declares Disaster Areas

Damage estimates range into the tens of millions of dollars. Gov. Phil Bredesen declared 52 of Tennessee's 95 counties disaster areas after finishing an aerial tour from Nashville to western Tennessee during which he saw flooding so extensive that treetops looked like islands.

The severity of the storms caught everyone off guard. More than 13.5 inches of rainfall were recorded Saturday and Sunday, according to the National Weather Service, making for a new two-day record that doubled the previous mark.

Authorities and volunteers in fishing boats, an amphibious tour bus and a canoe scooped up about 500 trapped vacationers at the Wyndham Resort along the river near Opryland on Monday. Rescuers had to steer through a maze of underwater hazards, including submerged cars, some with tops barely visible above floodwaters the color of milk chocolate.

Bill Crousser was riding his Jet Ski past a neighbor's house when he rescued a man, his wife and their dog moments before flames from a fire in the garage broke through the roof.

"We just got the hell out of there," Crousser said.

'I Think I've Lost Everything'

Survivors are regrouping at Red Cross shelters, including one set up at the Gordon Jewish Community Center. Volunteers have been feeding evacuees like 80-year-old Fay Harper, who left her house Sunday in a canoe, Farmer reported Tuesday on Morning Edition.

"My neighbor across the street knocked on the door and said, 'You've got to get out.' I didn't even know. I think I've lost everything," Harper said.

The water swelled most of the area's lakes, minor rivers, creeks, streams and drainage systems far beyond capacity. It flowed with such force that bridges were washed out and thousands of homes were damaged. Much of that water then drained into the Cumberland, which snakes through Nashville.

The Cumberland topped out around 6 p.m. Monday at 51.9 feet, about 12 feet above flood stage and the highest it's reached since 1937. It began to recede just in time to spare the city's only remaining water treatment plant.

Still, about 50 Nashville schools were damaged, and floodwaters submerged hundreds of homes in the Bellevue suburb alone, including Lisa Blackmon's. She escaped with her dog and her car but feared she lost everything else.

"I know God doesn't give us more than we can take," said Blackmon, 45, who lost her job at a trucking company in December. "But I'm at my breaking point."

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