Tennessee flooding: Pictures show ‘devastating loss’ as search begins for more than 40 missing

·24-min read
A car peeks out from under a house that was destroyed by floodwaters at the Cooley Market in Waverly, Tennessee (AP)
A car peeks out from under a house that was destroyed by floodwaters at the Cooley Market in Waverly, Tennessee (AP)

A ranch foreman who worked for country music superstar Loretta Lynn and two twin toddlers were among the 22 people who tragically lost their lives as the US town of Waverly, Tennessee, and its surrounding counties were devastated by catastrophic flash flooding over the weekend, the disaster brought on by torrential rainfall that struck without warning.

Search and rescue efforts continue with an estimated 20 people still missing as local citizens say they were caught totally off guard by the 17 inches of rain that hammered the area over 24 hours - much of it within a six-hour window.

Responding to the tragedy, US president Joe Biden expressed his sincere condolences from the White House and said: “We’ve reached out to the community and we stand ready to offer them support.”

Waverly public safety officials have posted a partial list of those missing in the flood, asking the public’s help in locating them.

Survivors described the floodwaters as rushing in like a tsunami.

“All of a sudden it was like a tidal wave that just came over the road and into my yard,” Casey Hipshire told CNN. “Next thing I know the water is in my house, and it’s up to my chest.”

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Tennessee floods: Twin toddlers among 22 dead after record rain as dozens still missing

What has caused the flooding disaster in Tennessee?

Key Points

  • Twin toddlers among 21 dead as Waverly hit by flash flooding

  • Country music star Loretta Lynn’s ranch foreman among the dead

  • Rescue efforts continue with 20 missing amid wreckage

  • Joe Biden expresses condolences and offers federal support

  • ‘Catastrophic’ flooding blamed on climate emergency

09:41 , Joe Sommerlad

Good morning and welcome to The Independent’s live coverage of the rescue effort underway in Waverly, Tennessee, in the aftermath of the flash flooding that struck the city and surrounding counties over the weekend, leaving at least 21 people dead and 20 missing.

Twin toddlers among 22 dead as Waverly hit by flash flooding

09:55 , Joe Sommerlad

Two seven-month-old infants were among the 21 people who tragically lost their lives as the US town of Waverly, Tennessee, and its surrounding counties were devastated by catastrophic flash flooding on Saturday, the disaster brought on by torrential rainfall that struck without warning.

The bodies of siblings Ryan and Rieligh Rigney have since been recovered, according to Humphreys County sheriff Chris Davis, after reportedly being swept away from their father when rising waters engulfed the family’s Nashville apartment.

The rainfall total shattered the state’s record for a single day by more than three inches, according to the National Weather Service.

Images posted on social media showed damaged buildings and cars overturned having been swept away by the floodwaters.

At the Cash Saver grocery in Waverly, employees stood on desks, registers and a flower rack when the waters from a creek that usually lies 120 metres away rushed in after destroying the low-income housing next door.

The flooding in rural areas took out roads, mobile phone towers and telephone lines, leaving families uncertain about whether their loved ones survived the unprecedented deluge.

Oliver O’Connell has this report.

Twin toddlers among 22 dead in catastrophic Tennessee flash floods

Rescue efforts continue with 20 missing amid wreckage

10:15 , Joe Sommerlad

Waverly’s mayor, Wallace “Buddy” Frazier, said on Sunday that another 42 people are still missing (a list that has since been trimmed to 20) as search and rescue efforts continue, with local citizens saying that they were caught totally off guard by the 17 inches of rain that hammered the area over 24 hours - much of it within a six-hour window.

The names of the missing are being displayed on a board in the county’s emergency centre and listed on a city department’s Facebook page.

The Humphreys County Sheriff Office Facebook page was meanwhile filled with people looking for news of missing friends and family. GoFundMe pages were also made asking for help for funeral expenses for the dead.

“I would expect, given the number of fatalities, that we’re going to see mostly recovery efforts at this point rather than rescue efforts,” Tennessee emergency management director Patrick Sheehan said.

Emergency workers are nevertheless searching door-to-door, said Kristi Brown, a coordinator for health and safety supervisor with Humphreys County Schools.

Josh Whitlock and Stacy Mathieson look through what is left of their home after it burned following flooding in Waverly, Tennesse on  Sunday 22 August 2021 (Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean/AP)
Josh Whitlock and Stacy Mathieson look through what is left of their home after it burned following flooding in Waverly, Tennesse on Sunday 22 August 2021 (Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean/AP)

Joe Biden expresses condolences and offers federal support

10:35 , Joe Sommerlad

Responding to the tragedy in a briefing otherwise dedicated to the Afghan evacuation and Tropical Storm Henri’s impact on New England, US president Joe Biden expressed his sincere condolences to the people of Tennessee from the White House and said: “We’ve reached out to the community and we stand ready to offer them support.”

Governor Lee: ‘A devastating picture of loss and heartache’

10:55 , Joe Sommerlad

The state’s Republican governor toured the area on Sunday, stopping on Main Street in Waverly where some homes had been swept from their foundations and people were left sifting through what remained of their water-logged possessions.

All around the county, the governor said he saw debris from wrecked cars, demolished businesses and homes.

“They would see water in their yard and then within minutes it was coming into their home,” Lee said of terrified local residents, adding that the victims went from “seeing floodwaters rise to not being able to escape their homes”.

“Homes washed off their foundations, cars strewn about the community... It is a devastating picture of loss and heartache."

The governor added that first responders, including the US National Guard, will stay on the scene as search and rescue operations continue.

“What we do know is that it's incredibly difficult and our hearts and our prayers need to be for these communities, for those folks in that community, many of them who have suffered, not only the loss of their homes and their property, but the loss of family members and friends.”

One local woman, Shirley Foster, cried as the governor walked by. She said she just learned that a friend from her church was dead.

“I thought I was over the shock of all this. I’m just tore up over my friend. My house is nothing, but my friend is gone,” Foster told Lee, who took a moment to comfort her.

State governor Bill Lee comforts Shirley Foster, who had just learned a friend of hers had died in the flooding in Waverly, Tennessee, on Sunday 22 August 2021 (Alan Poizner/The Tennessean/AP)
State governor Bill Lee comforts Shirley Foster, who had just learned a friend of hers had died in the flooding in Waverly, Tennessee, on Sunday 22 August 2021 (Alan Poizner/The Tennessean/AP)

‘Catastrophic’ flooding blamed on climate emergency

11:15 , Joe Sommerlad

The National Weather Service (NWS) described the situation in Tennessee as “catastrophic” on Saturday night, with the hardest-hit areas like Waverly seeing double the rainfall the region suffered in its previous worst-case scenario for flooding, according to meteorologists.

Lines of storms moved over the area for hours, wringing out a record amount of moisture - a scenario scientists have warned may be more common because of global heating and the climate emergency.

The downpours rapidly turned the creeks that run behind backyards and through downtown Waverly into raging rapids.

Business owner Kansas Klein stood on a bridge on Saturday in the town of 4,500 people and saw two girls who were holding on to a puppy and clinging to a wooden board sweep past, the current too fast for anyone to grab them. He is yet to find out what happened to them, the AP reports.

Not far from the bridge, Klein said that dozens of buildings in a low-income housing area known as Brookside appeared to have borne the brunt of the flash flood from Trace Creek.

“It was devastating: buildings were knocked down, half of them were destroyed," he said. “People were pulling out bodies of people who had drowned and didn’t make it out.”

Social media has been inundated with local stories from the disaster, many deeply tragic.

Just to the east of Waverly, the town of McEwen was pummeled Saturday with 17.02 inches of rain, smashing the state’s 24-hour record of 13.6 inches from 1982, according to the NWS in Nashville.

A flash flood watch was issued for the area before the rain started, with forecasters saying 4 to 6 inches of rain was possible. The worst storm recorded in this area of Middle Tennessee only dropped 9 inches of rain, said Krissy Hurley, a weather service meteorologist in Nashville.

“Forecasting almost a record is something we don’t do very often,” she said. “Double the amount we’ve ever seen was almost unfathomable.”Recent scientific research has determined that extreme rain events will become more frequent because of man-made climate change.

Hurley said it is impossible to know its exact role in Saturday’s flood, but noted in the past year her office dealt with floods that used to be expected maybe once every 100 years in September south of Nashville and in March closer to the city.

“We had an incredible amount of water in the atmosphere,” Hurley said of Saturday’s flooding. “Thunderstorms developed and moved across the same area over and over and over.”

But the problem isn’t limited to Tennessee. A federal study found man-made climate change doubles the chances of the types of heavy downpours that in August 2016 dumped 26 inches of rain around Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Those floods killed at least 13 people and damaged 150,000 homes.

Country music star Loretta Lynn’s ranch foreman among the dead

11:35 , Joe Sommerlad

Wayne Spears, who worked for the legendary “Coal Miner’s Daughter” singer, was among the 21 who lost their lives in the disaster over the weekend.

“He’s out at his barn and next thing you know, he goes from checking animals in the barn to hanging on in the barn to people seeing him floating down the creek. And that’s how fast it had come up,” Sheriff Chris Davis said.

Spears was seen in one photo taken by someone at the ranch wearing a cowboy hat and clinging to a pillar in brown churning water up to his chest while video posted on Twitter revealed the extent of the flooding at the farm.

Lynn’s people have since paid tribute to Spears, saying the star, 89, is “heartbroken” at the loss and applauding his “ready smile, kind heart, and willingness to go the extra mile for everyone around him”.

“Wayne’s just one of those guys, he just does everything for everybody, if there’s a job to do,” his friend Michael Pate, who met Spears at Lynn’s ranch 15 years ago, told the AP.

Reunification centre set up, local schools closed... and a message of hope from Germany

11:55 , Joe Sommerlad

The Humphreys County Sheriff’s Office has been busy on Facebook, giving details of a reunification centre it has set up to bring people separated by the floods back together and offering information on how to donate to the stricken community.

It also posts this kind message of encouragement from a German citizen, whose own country was also devastated by flash flooding earlier this summer, along with swathes of Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland.

‘We’ve experienced a devastating loss of life’

12:20 , Joe Sommerlad

So said Waverly Police and Fire chief Grant Gillespie during his afternoon press conference outside the county courthouse on Sunday, addressing the flood damage done to infrastructure, schools, homes and other facilities in the town.

“We’ve experienced devastating loss of life over the last couple of days. We’ve lost more people in this than in the train explosion of 1978. But we’ve seen the community come together,” he said, according to Tennessean reporter Mariah Timms.

In one bit of good news, Gillespie was able to reduce the number of missing people by halve, explaining that the restoration of mobile phone service had allowed people to get back in touch with their loved ones and let them know they were safe.

Gillespie also said that an 8pm curfew would remain in place in Waverly over the coming days and that a number of looting suspects had been apprehended amid the chaos.

“We’ve got some very, very bad damage in our city, in our county. It’s going to take us a while. We’ve got to rebuild some infrastructure,” Sheriff Davis said at the same event, the group also saying that water quality was improving but that a boil order remained in effect in the interests of public health.

‘Knowing that you have people that stayed that can’t get help… It hurts, it hurts’

12:50 , Joe Sommerlad

Also speaking emotionally at yesterday’s press conference was the aforementioned Patrick Sheehan, director of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, who said rescue efforts “will go on until we account for all missing Tennesseans”

“It’s pretty devastating on the ground. We’re going to see mostly recovery efforts at this point rather than rescue efforts.”

Sheriff Davis was also reportedly holding back tears as he remarked: “Knowing that you have people that stayed that can’t get help... I have people floating down the creek that nobody can get to, and nobody can help. It hurts. It hurts.”

Mayor Buddy Frazier agreed, observing that the loss of life was unlike anything the town has ever experienced.

“I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve been through a lot of events here and this one really took me back... This is bad, this is bad. The number of people it affected, the number of lives lost.”

Locals document nightmarish flood damage on social media

13:20 , Joe Sommerlad

Here’s a little more from Twitter, underling the scale of the disaster Waverly is facing.

Storm Henri threatens to swamp northeastern states

13:50 , Joe Sommerlad

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, New England also looks set to be battered by heavy rain after the latest Atlantic front made landfall and doused Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Jersey.

Henri hurls rain as storm settles atop swamped Northeast

Waverly locals survey the damage

14:20 , Joe Sommerlad

This was the scene in the stricken Tennessee town the morning after the storm had passed, leaving a trail of carnage and debris in its wake.

A car flipped upside-down and supporterd by a utility pole in Waverly, Tennessee, the morning after the devastating flooding (Mark Humphrey/AP)
A car flipped upside-down and supporterd by a utility pole in Waverly, Tennessee, the morning after the devastating flooding (Mark Humphrey/AP)
A car and mangled utility building lean against one another in Waverly, Tennesee, after the storm (Mark Humphrey/AP)
A car and mangled utility building lean against one another in Waverly, Tennesee, after the storm (Mark Humphrey/AP)
Brian Mitchell, right, looks through the damaged home of his mother-in-law along with family friend Chris Hoover in Waverly on Sunday (Mark Humphrey/AP)
Brian Mitchell, right, looks through the damaged home of his mother-in-law along with family friend Chris Hoover in Waverly on Sunday (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Survivors say flooding was ‘like a tidal wave'

14:44 , Nathan Place

Survivors of the deadly flooding in Tennessee say the waters rushed in like a tsunami.

“All of a sudden it was like a tidal wave that just came over the road and into my yard,” Casey Hipshire told CNN. “Next thing I know the water is in my house, and it's up to my chest.”

Ms Hipshire said she, her husband, and their eight-year-old son survived by breaking a window and climbing through it onto their roof.

Josh Whitlock and Stacy Mathieson look through what is left of their home after it burned following flooding in Waverly, Tennesse on  Sunday 22 August 2021 (Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean/AP)
Josh Whitlock and Stacy Mathieson look through what is left of their home after it burned following flooding in Waverly, Tennesse on Sunday 22 August 2021 (Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean/AP)

Sheriff of flooded county says his own ‘best friend’ is among the dead

14:59 , Nathan Place

Sheriff Chris Davis of Humphreys County, Tennessee, says one of his own best friends died in the flood.

“They just went and got one of my best friends. He drowned in it,” Mr Davis told WSMV.

So far, 22 people have been reported dead in the floods.

“It hurts,” Mr Davis went on. “If I slow down and think about it, I get emotional. If I stay working and stay focused, I work through it.”

Waverly officials post missing persons list

15:07 , Nathan Place

Officials in Waverly, Tennessee have posted a partial list of those missing in the flood, asking the public’s help in locating them.

“If you have physically seen or talked to the person listed below please contact 931-582-6950 or go to Mcewen High School at 335 Melrose Avenue in Mcewen and report to the gymnasium,” the Waverly Department of Public Safety said in a Facebook post.

Video shows horrific flood damage in Waverly, Tennessee

15:27 , Nathan Place

A video posted by CNN reporter Nick Valencia shows upturned cars and destroyed homes in Waverly, Tennessee, after the disastrous flooding there.

Cousin says twin babies died after flood ripped them from father’s arms

15:42 , Nathan Place

A family member says the twin babies killed in the Waverly floods died after being wrenched from their father’s arms.

“My cousin Danielle and Matt lost there 2 beautiful twin babys today the flood took them away [sic],” Charity Hooks wrote in a GoFundMe for the family. “The mother grabbed a tree and the father had the 2 twins the 5 year old and 19 month old and sadly the 2 baby’s left his arms!”

Ms Hooks is now raising money for the twins’ funeral expenses.

Waverly woman broadcasted flood on Facebook shortly before her death

16:01 , Nathan Place

A woman who was killed in the flood in Waverly, Tennessee posted footage of the rising waters just before she drowned in them.

“We are being flooded right now in Waverly, Tennessee. Really scary,” Linda Almond said in a Facebook Live video just before her death. In the footage, gray floodwaters can be seen rushing past her window.

Ms Almond and her son later climbed onto their roof for safety, family members told WKRN, but the roof collapsed. The son was later rescued, but Ms Almond did not survive.

Waverly officials ask for public’s help with recovery effort

16:14 , Nathan Place

Officials in Waverly, Tennessee have asked for volunteers to help with the recovery and cleanup effort following the disastrous floods in that city.

“Anyone wanting to volunteer to help with cleanup and recovery can call 931-888-8011 or 931-888-8012,” the Waverly Department of Public Safety said on Facebook. “Thank you for your help!”

Waverly survivor held 84-year-old mother for three hours as their porch was flooded, report says

16:40 , Nathan Place

David Allen of Waverly, Tennessee says he saved his mother’s life by holding onto her for three hours as the waters rose over their porch.

“His 84-year old mother is safe now, but can’t swim,” reporter Abby Lee Hood wrote after interviewing Mr Allen.

Aerial footage shows devastation in Waverly, Tennessee

16:49 , Nathan Place

Aerial footage from WJZ shows the smoking ruins of homes in Waverly, Tennessee, which has been devastated by a historic flood.

‘We’re about to die!’ Survivors recall terrifying moments

17:01 , Nathan Place

Survivors of the Waverly flood have told the Weather Channel their harrowing stories.

“I was hearing little kids’ voices, ‘We’re about to die! We’re about to die!’” one traumatized man told the station. “That’s so heartbreaking.”

“There was no saving anything,” another woman said.

Kamala Harris says she’s ‘praying’ for flood victims’ families

17:32 , Nathan Place

Vice President Kamala Harris has offered her condolences to the families affected by the flooding in Tennessee.

“Doug and I are praying for the families impacted by the terrible flash flooding in Tennessee, and we offer our deepest condolences for those who have lost loved ones,” the vice president said on Twitter. “Our administration stands ready to help during this difficult period.”

Shocking photos show Tennessee’s devastation

17:45 , Nathan Place

Photos posted by the Weather Channel show the shocking devastation in Tennessee after historic flash floods battered the state. The pictures show overturned cars, destroyed homes, and piles of vehicles smashed into each other.

Desperate family searches for missing 15-year-old daughter

18:00 , Nathan Place

A family in Waverly, Tennessee is asking for the public’s help in finding 15-year-old Lilly Bryant, who was swept away in the floodwaters.

Lilly has blonde hair, is 5’7” tall, and was wearing a pink top and blue shorts when she was last seen.

“My sister is just devastated,” the girl’s aunt told WKRN. “She’s broken down so many times she can’t even speak. I’m pretty much all cried out.”

Governor discusses ‘devastating’ floods, thanks volunteers

18:15 , Nathan Place

In a radio interview, Tennessee governor Bill Lee discussed the “devastating” floods in his state, but also said volunteer efforts there have provided “hope.”

“The coordinated response has been impressive and significant,” Mr Lee told host Brian Wilson. “It’s kind of the intersection between tragedy and response to tragedy that provides so much hope and encouragement in the midst of what seems to be hopeless in the moment.”

Tennessee senator thanks volunteers for ‘coming together'

18:30 , Nathan Place

Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee has praised the volunteers helping with the recovery effort in her state as it recovers from deadly floods.

“As I witnessed firsthand yesterday, the devastation in Humphreys County is extensive,” Ms Blackburn tweeted. “But Tennesseans are resilient, and it’s great to see so many volunteers already coming together to help their neighbors in need.”

Woman describes losing her home in flood

18:52 , Graig Graziosi

A woman in Tennessee spoke with CNN about losing her home in the massive flood that swept through Waverly.

She told the network that there was “a lot of heartache” in the wake of the devastating weather event.

Rescue crews are still working to find survivors amid the destruction left by the flood.

What caused the flooding disaster in Tennessee?

19:48 , Nathan Place

Climate change and inadequate dams have both likely played a role in causing the disaster in Tennessee, The Independent’s Kelsie Sandoval reports.

In 2020, US Representative Jim Cooper sponsored a bill that allowed two dams in Nashville to be used to control future floods, but the state’s plan doesn’t cover flooding that occurs in other areas of the state, leaving many people unprotected.

Meanwhile, researchers have found that extreme weather, like heavy rains that can trigger flash floods, are becoming more frequent because of the climate crisis.

Read more here.

What has caused the flooding disaster in Tennessee?

Waverly mother saves four of her five children, but tragically loses two-year-old

20:14 , Nathan Place

A mother managed to save four of her five children from the floodwaters in Waverly, Tennessee, but tragically lost hold of her toddler son as he was swept away.

Two-year-old Kellen Cole Burrow is now among the missing after the disastrous floods struck the state over the weekend.

Kellen’s father, Kalaub McCord, says the boy’s mother was clutching him and their four other children as floodwaters rushed into their apartment.

“I couldn’t get back to him, but she managed to save our other four children,” Mr McCord told WZTV. “If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have any children right now.”

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