Thursday, September 23, 2021

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At least 21 dead, dozens missing after catastrophic flooding in central Tennessee, officials say


The family of six woke Saturday to floods bursting into their new duplex, relatives said. The water outside was up to their chests. Soon it tore them apart.

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Danielle Hall, 25, was swept to a tree, where she clung for hours, waiting to be rescued, family members said. Her partner, Matt Rigney, tried to grab their four kids, but a current pulled them away.

Two of the young children resurfaced unscathed, said their grandparents, who heard the story later. But Hall and Rigney's 7-month-old twins never came up.

They are among 21 known victims of the historic rain and flash flooding that swept central Tennessee on Saturday, devastating the small city of Waverly, about 60 miles west of Nashville. Rescuers were still searching Sunday for 45 people, as families desperate for answers filled Facebook groups and comment chains with the names of their missing loved ones. Receding waters left behind wrecked homes and flipped cars.

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) called the torrential rain and flooding "catastrophic." One observation site recorded 17 inches of rain in 24 hours, blowing past the state's nearly 14-inch record set in 1982, a meteorologist said. A flash flood watch issued Friday quickly became a "flash flood emergency" Saturday as some people yelled for help from their rooftops while others found themselves trapped in vehicles.

Flash flood emergency alerts are saved for "the most dire circumstances," said National Weather Service meteorologist Krissy Hurley, who described Waverly as "pretty much underwater" Saturday. "Yesterday was definitely one of them."

The destruction unfolded as other extreme weather events around the country stoke concerns that the changing climate is making natural disasters more frequent and more intense. The Northeast braced for an unrelated pummeling from Tropical Storm Henri; the West is battling wildfires; and flooding in North Carolina recently left several people dead. Although Hurley could not say whether climate change played a role in the devastation in Tennessee, she said the area has been battered by three fearsome floods in less than a year. The last one, in March, was also deadly.

"This is unusual," she said, calling the weekend's rains more reminiscent of a hurricane on the coast than a flash flood in central Tennessee. A thunderstorm kept hitting the same spots, she said, and "when you get that amount of rainfall in a short amount of time, you are going to have devastating consequences."

Chris Davis, the sheriff in hard-hit Humphreys County, offered a mix of sorrow and resolve on Sunday.

"Small town, small community. We know each other, we love each other," he told local TV station News 4 Nashville in an emotional interview. One of his best friends drowned, he said.

"It's tough, but we're going to move forward," he said. "I slow down and I talk about it, and I get emotional. If I stay - you know, if I stay working and focused, we work through it."

President Joe Biden said he has spoken with Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, R, and stands "ready to offer them support."

Joey Hall, the grandfather of the two 7-month-olds, said his daughter called him worrying about how she would afford to bury her babies. The young couple had lost nearly everything - and even before the floods swept through, they were spread thin, said Hall and his wife, Jeanna Hall, who live about an hour away from Waverly in Ashland City, Tenn.

Joey Hall said his daughter's family had just moved into their duplex weeks ago, seeking somewhere closer to relatives - and cheaper, as they tried to get by on Rigney's factory night-shift salary.

Danielle Hall got to hold her deceased children briefly in the hospital before they were taken away, the family said. The twins were reportedly found together.

"Every time they'd put them apart in the bed, they would cry," their grandfather said. "You put them next to each other, they're holding each other's hands and arms. Sweetest thing I've ever seen."

Sunday was full of tears as person after person called to offer help. A GoFundMe drive for the family has raised more than $20,000.

"God is good," said Jeanna Hall, 38. "He sees us hurting, and how broke we are right now."

By Sunday, the waters had receded, and the torrential rain had given way to showers. But officials were still pleading for caution and announced an 8 p.m. curfew.

"We are asking that residents please stay out of neighborhoods and roadways while the rescue effort is underway," Waverly Chief of Public Safety Grant Gillespie said in a statement.

On Sunday, TEMA said, more than 10,000 customers in the storm area lacked power. Teams were still working after conducting more than 20 rescues and evacuations on Saturday and searching about 100 homes and 25 businesses, the agency said. Waverly, home to several thousand people, reported that its water treatment facility was down, and residents there and in nearby Bon Aqua were told to boil their drinking water.

Others counties affected include Dickson, Hickman and Houston, according to TEMA. The sheriffs in those counties have yet to report fatalities but had urged people to stay home as they warned of downed trees and roads made impassable by water and debris.

The disaster came on quickly. Communication became difficult as cell service faltered. Staffers stranded in the gym of an elementary school asked for prayers Saturday.

A 20-minute drive from Waverly, in McEwen, Tenn., Tamara Woodward said she and her boyfriend woke up early Saturday to strong rain but "didn't think much of it" at first. Then her boyfriend tried to get to the farm he runs next door. He couldn't get through the driveway, Woodward said.

They stayed inside all day as the news grew more dire. Alerts pinged on their phones; they saw a picture of a car floating by and listened to sirens. "We've lived here three years, and yeah, we've seen the creek rise maybe three times. . . . But nothing like this," Woodward said.

They were not immune to the damage - their basement flooded and their farm fences toppled - but they feel intensely lucky, Woodward said. As soon as they could, they brought supplies down to donation centers, including bags of clothes, masks and sanitizer, because Woodward worries about another threat: the spread of the coronavirus.

"We're mostly focused on just helping the people of Waverly," she said.

When she read about the 7-month-olds, she burst into tears.

Another woman told local news station WKRN that her 2-year-old nephew, Kellen Burrow Vaughn, was also swept away and missing.

The Tennessee National Guard said Saturday night that its soldiers and airmen were helping other emergency responders. A Black Hawk helicopter was assisting with water rescues, officials said, while medics were airlifted to a hospital as support staff and others were setting up emergency cellular, Internet and radio communications.

"Our first priority is to assist with getting responders access to the area and conduct rescue operations," Maj. Gen. Jeff Holmes, Tennessee's adjutant general, said in a statement shared by the Guard.

McEwen High School's gym is acting as a reunification center, officials said, and three churches in Waverly are offering shelter: Waverly Church of Christ, First Baptist Church and Compassion Church.

Waverly Mayor Buddy Frazier told WKRN that the floods were "the most devastating disaster that we've ever experienced in this area," striking with "the quickness of a tornado."

Frazier said authorities were hoping the number of people unaccounted for would decline as more were found safe.

"Normally, on a Sunday morning like this, people are going to church," he said. "But this Sunday, our churches are shelters for those who were left homeless."

One Waverly couple told the Tennessean that they were rescued from their attic by a bulldozer after spending several hours stuck.

"Hell. That's what we had to go through," Cindy Dunn, 48, told the newspaper.

"I have no credit cards," she said as she and her husband planned to stay with family in Clarksville. "I have no bank cards. No IDs. I have nothing."

Published : August 23, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Hannah Knowles