Rescuers feared even more bodies would emerge on Tuesday as muddy flood waters ebb from torrential weekend rains that swamped Nashville, much of Tennessee and two neighboring states, killing at least 29 people.
The Cumberland River that 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.”
Businesses along Nashville’s riverfront lost electricity early Tuesday. Laurie Parker, a spokeswoman for Nashville Electric Service, said a main circuit failed before dawn, knocking out power to downtown businesses in a 24-square-block area, including the 33-story AT&T Building, a Hilton hotel, the arena where the Nashville Predators NHL team plays and honky-tonks in the country music tourism district.
Parker said the power in that district would be out the rest of the week.
“It will be Friday at the earliest,” she said, “depending on how fast the water level falls.”
Thousands of people have fled their homes and hundreds were rescued by boat and canoe over the past two days, but as the floodwaters began recede, bodies were recovered from homes, a yard, even a wooded area outside a Nashville supermarket. By Tuesday morning, the flash floods were blamed in the deaths of 18 people in Tennessee alone, including 10 in Nashville.
By Tuesday, rescue operations of stranded residents were winding down in Nashville, though emergency management officials were checking a report of a house floating in a northern neighborhood, trying to determine if anyone was in it.
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 residents to alert them if they believe someone might be missing.
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 on 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 received.
Restaurants 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, who lives in a downtown condo, 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.”
The flooding also prompted election officials to delay the city’s local primary, which had been set for Tuesday.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
The Cumberland topped out around 6 p.m. Monday at 51.9 feet, about 12 feet above flood stage — 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.”