Tennessee Flooding: Rescuers Search For People Still Missing

At least 18 people are dead and three others remained missing after catastrophic flash floods. Officials attributed the devastation to a “perfect storm” of perilous conditions.,

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Tennessee City Searches for Flood Victims While Grappling With All It Has Lost

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Survivor of Deadly Flooding in Tennessee Describes Destruction

Waverly, Tenn., experienced deadly flooding and destruction that killed at least 18 people. A survivor of the disaster recalled how she escaped.

We just about didn’t make it out. We just about floated back, but as we went, as we was driving out, we could see these people on their porches. And I think in my mind that they thought they were safe, that the water was not going to get that high. But from what I’ve heard, it gushed at them, and we lost. Miss Mary. She drowned in the process. She was our hero. She saved us.

Waverly, Tenn., experienced deadly flooding and destruction that killed at least 18 people. A survivor of the disaster recalled how she escaped.CreditCredit…Brett Carlsen for The New York Times

By Rick Rojas, Tariro Mzezewa and Jamie McGee

Aug. 24, 2021Updated 6:49 p.m. ET

WAVERLY, Tenn. — The search for the missing after violent floods tore through Middle Tennessee pressed ahead with renewed urgency on Tuesday even as the authorities acknowledged diminishing hope for finding alive the last of those still unaccounted for.

“We are, of course, hopeful,” Grant Gillespie, the police chief in Waverly, Tenn., the center of the destruction, told reporters during a briefing on Tuesday. “But we are still looking.”

Eighteen people were confirmed dead and three remained missing after the catastrophic flash floods triggered by heavy rainfall, which caught many by surprise on Saturday, hitting a stretch of rural communities west of Nashville like a tidal wave.

The number of fatalities and missing people has fluctuated since Saturday. The authorities had previously reported a higher death toll, but on Tuesday, officials explained that some of those people had died of causes unconnected to the flooding. Those still missing included one woman and two people younger than 18.

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The catastrophic flash floods triggered by heavy rainfall caught many by surprise in Waverly last weekend.Credit…Brandon Dill for The New York Times

“We didn’t realize they were not flood victims,” Chief Gillespie said of the individuals removed from the death toll. “They came through the emergency room or were already in the emergency room and their name got put on the list.”

The updated figures came as officials and residents were emerging from a cloud of shock and confusion. Many were beginning to take stock of the devastation and the daunting recovery ahead of them.

“We have an extremely long road to go,” said Sheriff Chris Davis of Humphreys County, which includes Waverly and the other hardest-hit communities. He estimated that 125 homes were completely destroyed and hundreds more damaged.

He ticked off a swirl of ingredients that contributed to the catastrophe: the amount of rainfall, which forecasters said would set a statewide record for the most in a 24-hour span; the speed of the downpour; and the loss of the region’s phone and 911 systems. The town of McEwen recorded 17 inches of rainfall on Saturday, breaking the record of 13.6 inches that was set in 1982.

“The perfect storm happened here,” Sheriff Davis said. “Are we going to definitely look at it and learn from it? Absolutely. We’d be crazy not to.” But, he added, “we made the best decisions we could when we had to make them.”

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Chris Pasquale cleaned debris from the home of his mother and grandmother, who were saved from dangerous floodwaters by rescuers aboard a jet ski. Credit…Brett Carlsen for The New York Times

President Biden on Tuesday approved a major disaster declaration for Tennessee, making federal assistance available to supplement recovery efforts.

In Waverly, a city of roughly 4,100 people, residents and crews of volunteers worked in blistering heat, gutting flooded homes and businesses and piling the contents outside.

But some also conveyed a sense of not knowing where to begin, with so much work to be done. Some homes had been tossed far from their foundations, and streets were littered with mangled cars and debris.

The National Guard closed a main thoroughfare to all traffic except for residents and those providing assistance. Officials have pleaded with sightseers to stop passing through just to gawk at the devastation.

Many residents were still living in church halls that had been converted into shelters or with relatives whose homes had been spared. The process of rebuilding their lives was starting with baby steps: replacing the clothing, medication and paperwork that had been lost.

Carlos and Brittany McDaniels, along with their two children, have been staying on air mattresses and cots at Waverly First Baptist Church since Saturday, along with dozens of others who were displaced by the floods. Mr. McDaniels said that he and his son received disability checks, but that this month, he did not know where they would be mailed.

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Vehicles piled up under an overpass along the banks of Blue Creek.Credit…Brandon Dill for The New York Times

Mr. and Ms. McDaniels woke up to a phone call from a friend on Saturday morning warning them about the flooding. They looked out the window and could already see rising water.

Ms. McDaniels woke their two children, and they all raced into the car. As they drove away, they had no destination in mind. They just wanted to get away from the water. “That phone call saved us by minutes or even seconds,” Mr. McDaniels said.

The family returned home to find a brownish-yellow stain line about five feet off the floor, marking how high the water had climbed. Everything was filthy. “Like someone threw a mud party,” Ms. McDaniels said. The house would almost certainly have to be torn down.

In the nearby city of McEwen, the high school gymnasium had become a relief center. Inside, tables were piled with cleaning supplies, blankets and stacks of clothes. The bleachers were lined with pairs of donated shoes, ranging from slippers for infants to flip-flops in a men’s size 14. Outside, state officials had parked a trailer to print new driver’s licenses for flood victims who had lost their identification.

Officials on Tuesday urged county residents to consider getting vaccines: tetanus if they had been in floodwater, and hepatitis A if they were feeling gastrointestinal symptoms. Both were available at local churches.

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Volunteers sorted items at a donation and reconciliation center at the high school gym in McEwen, Tenn.Credit…Brett Carlsen for The New York Times

But the practical work of recovery was overshadowed by the anguish and horror unleashed by the floods. Even those who did not lose relatives were within a few degrees of separation of someone who died: friends, neighbors, high school classmates, fellow worshipers at their church.

“These are people we know,” Sheriff Davis said. “These are people we grew up with.”

For the families of people killed, lives had been upended in a multitude of ways.

Jaquita Buchanan said her 68-year-old stepfather drove her mother away from the area early Saturday morning and then returned to Waverly to try to save his neighbor.

“But he got swept away,” Ms. Buchanan said. “He died trying to help.”

Later, she walked through her parents’ house to survey the damage. “It was like a tornado had swept through,” Ms. Buchanan said.

The ceiling was stained by brown water. Every inch of the house was a soaked mess. Beside her stepfather’s bed, stuck in two inches of mud, she found his Bible.

“It was muddied and tattered,” she said. “Just like everything else.”

Brett Carlsen and Eduardo Medina contributed reporting.

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