Storm toll climbs: 15 dead in Tenn., Miss.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Devastating thunderstorms slammed Tennessee and northern Mississippi over the weekend, killing at least 15 people, including five in Nashville, closing scores of highways, and leaving weeks of cleanup for thousands of residents whose homes were damaged.
Thousands were evacuated and hundreds of others were rescued from their homes – some plucked from rooftops – as flood waters from swollen rivers and creeks inundated neighborhoods across the region. Hospitals, schools and state buildings also were flooded.
And authorities were preparing for more damage as the Cumberland River, which winds through downtown Nashville, reached its highest level since an early 1960s flood-control project and was expected to crest around 50 feet early Monday morning – 10 feet above flood level.
While there aren’t many residents in the area, downtown Nashville is home to a bustling tourist industry and financial center, a train depot and LP Field where the Tennessee Titans play.
Firefighters busted through the windows of Audrey Talley’s trailer early Sunday to rescue her family, including her three small grandchildren, ages 9 months to 4 years old. Talley’s son woke her up to tell her water was coming into the trailer in south Nashville. Within 10 minutes it was knee deep.
“We’ve lost everything,” the 47-year-old Talley said at an emergency shelter at Lipscomb University. “I don’t know what we’re going to do. We’ve got nowhere to go.”
State officials in Tennessee said Sunday the flooding is as bad as they’ve seen since the mid-1970s. Tornadoes or high winds killed at least four people in Tennessee and Mississippi, surprise flash floods swept some unsuspecting residents to their deaths and an untold number of homes were flooded as urban drainage systems and watersheds struggled to remove the deluge.
Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen called it an “unprecedented rain event,” but that failed to capture the magnitude. More than 13 inches of rain fell in Nashville over two days, nearly doubling the previous record of 6.68 inches that fell in the wake of Hurricane Fredrick in 1979.
“That is an astonishing amount of rain in a 24- or 36-hour period,” Bredesen said Sunday.
At least 11 were dead in Tennessee and four in northern Mississippi. Tennessee Emergency Management Agency officials say there is likely a 12th victim, but a body has not been recovered. The death toll from storms in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee since April 24 has risen to at least 26 with several people missing. Three people in Mississippi were killed when tornadoes hit their homes and a fourth died after he drove into flood waters.
Much of the flooding damage was in outlying areas of Music City and across the middle and western parts of Tennessee. Rescues turned dramatic with homeowners plucked off their roofs, pregnant women airlifted off a waterlogged interstate and evacuations in dozens of areas, including the removal of 1,500 guests at Opryland to a nearby high school.
While officials had not confirmed the presence of a tornado, the cause of the destruction was apparent to those who responded Sunday to what remained of the mobile home of Latoya Long, 25, and Thomas Catrell Cowan, 26, who were killed early Sunday morning in Ashland, Miss.
“It looks like you stuck about four sticks of dynamite on it and it just disappeared,” Benton County coroner John Riles said of their home. Across the road, he said, a two-story house was just gone. “If you didn’t know the house was there, you’d just think it was a vacant lot.”
High winds or a tornado also contributed to the death of Phyllis Ann Sabbatini, 45, in nearby Abbeville, Miss., and a confirmed tornado killed 64-year-old Mary Buxton in the community of Pocahantas, Tenn., about 70 miles east of Memphis. Officials said the other deaths in Tennessee were all due to flooding.
The weekend deaths came on the heels of a tornado in Arkansas that killed a woman and injured about two dozen people Friday. And just a week ago 10 people were killed by a tornado from a separate storm in western Mississippi.
Flooding and damage was so widespread in Tennessee that Bredesen asked the state’s Army National Guard to help and dozens of vehicles and personnel were put to work rescuing stranded residents. Nashville Mayor Karl Dean reported more than 600 water rescues in the city alone.
One building in east Nashville was caught on video floating down Interstate 24 and passing stranded vehicles. The video was quickly uploaded to YouTube.
More than 20 shelters were open around the state, some filled to capacity. Jeff Fargis, with the American Red Cross at the Lipscomb shelter, said officials began turning people away Sunday afternoon, directing them to another shelter. But soon people began returning with news that flooding was so bad around that shelter no one could get there.
Most schools in middle Tennessee have closed for Monday. Most state employees are expected to return to work if possible, but the Andrew Jackson Building, one of the state’s largest, is closed.
The state, an important corridor for commerce, had multiple interstates closed over the weekend including sections of I-40 and I-24. Bredesen said in middle Tennessee alone more than 150 roads were closed.
Gary Kilgore, a truck driver from Peoria, Ill., parked his Crete Carrier truck just off the Natchez Trace Parkway south of Nashville, unable to go any further because of flooding.
“We are trapped like rats in a maze,” he said.
A last line of storms was expected to sweep the region Sunday evening. Attention will then turn to damage assessment and clean up.
Bredesen expected a lot of private property damage reports and said there appeared to be widespread damage to roads, bridges and other public infrastructure, including at the state’s own emergency operations center where up to a foot of water caused electrical problems and forced officials to relocate to an auxiliary command center.
Bredesen said it will be at least several days until the damage can be thoroughly assessed. He canceled a trip to Washington, D.C., this week to attend the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Governor’s Summit to oversee recovery efforts.
Longtime state officials say middle and western Tennessee haven’t experienced such devastating flooding since 1975 when flood waters inundated the Opryland amusement park east of downtown Nashville.
“I’ve never seen it this high,” said emergency official Donnie Smith, who’s lived in Nashville 45 years. “I’m sure that it’s rained this hard at one time, but never for this much of an extended period.”
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