NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Rescuers feared even more bodies would emerge as muddy flood waters 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 Nashville’s historic downtown was expected to start receeding Tuesday after being swollen by flash floods in creeks that feed into it.
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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.”
Thousands of people fled rising water and hundreds were rescued, but bodies were recovered Monday from homes, a yard, even a wooded area outside a Nashville supermarket. By Monday night, the rapidly rising waters 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.
In Nashville, the Cumberland 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.
“That’s the hub of the whole deal down here,” 82-year-old businessman John Hobbs said of the entertainment complex. “Without them nobody would be down here. That’s like the star of the whole family.
Floodwaters also edged into areas of downtown, damaging the Country Music Hall of Fame, LP Field where the Tennessee Titans play and the Bridgestone Arena, home to the NHL’s Nashville Predators and one of the city’s main concert venues.
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.”
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.
Dramatic rescues continued into Monday as water crept into areas that had remained safe during weekend downpours.
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. 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.
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.”