Tennesseans in anguish as flood tears homes and friends away
By Rick Rojas, Winston Choi-Schagrin and Tariro Mzezewa
With floodwaters rising rapidly, 15-year-old Lily Bryant and her older sister managed to find some wooden debris to cling to, but it offered only short-term relief. The makeshift raft hit a tree and split in two.
“Lily went one way and her sister went the other way, and no one has seen her since,” said Tarry Lynn Gillinger Holderman, Lily’s aunt. “She was washed away because the current was so strong.”
Lily’s sister, Kailynne, 19, made it to safety; Lily is missing.
Kailynne, Holderman said, is devastated. “She blames herself.”
The scale of the destruction from the weekend’s storm in Tennessee came into grim relief Monday, as emergency workers and those who escaped the worst spent the day searching for loved ones. At least 21 people were confirmed dead and about 10 others remained missing, officials said, in catastrophic flash flooding that climate scientists warned would become only more common.
“This is exactly the type of event we expect to see with increasing frequency in a warming climate,” said Gary Lackmann, a professor of atmospheric science at North Carolina State University.
The Tennessee disaster came just days after at least five people were killed in flash floods in North Carolina in the wake of Tropical Storm Fred. In July, extraordinary floods in Germany sent water crashing through the streets, killing dozens and causing widespread devastation.
Some scientists caution, however, that it can be difficult to determine whether climate change is the driving force behind any individual flood or is responsible for making it more catastrophic, including in Tennessee. Flooding is a result both of heavy rainfall and of the way water is managed — through dams, levees or retention ponds — as well as a landscape’s hydrology, the way that water flows, collects and runs off the land.
The flooding in Tennessee struck a rural area of rivers, creeks and rolling woods in and around Humphreys County, about 90 minutes west of Nashville. Up to 17 inches of rain fell on Saturday, shattering the state’s 24-hour record by more than 3 inches.
“Our people need help,” Chris Davis, the Humphreys County sheriff, said at a news briefing. “We’re going to be overwhelmed for the next 30 days at least. Overwhelmed.”
In Waverly, the epicenter of the destruction, anguish rippled through the closely knit community of about 4,100 people.
Terri Owen recalled standing on her toes amid the storm Saturday, struggling to keep her head above the rising water. She could see the woman across the street clinging to a pillar on her front porch, her cries for help punctuated by piercing screams. Two days later, the woman’s voice was still in her head.
“We can’t help you!” Owen remembered shouting back.
The water was furious. Stoves, refrigerators and cars whipped by. The pillar came loose, Owen said, and the screaming intensified. The entire house was swooped off its moorings and carried down the block. The woman died, and so did her adult son.
“God had no more favor on me than the woman who lost her life,” Owen said, pulling down her sunglasses to wipe her eyes as she sat on her friend’s muddy front porch. “I was just in a different place.”
Many were straining Monday to grasp all that had been lost.
School has been canceled for at least a week, officials said, and many roads and bridges remained closed to traffic.
The devastation could be seen for about 10 miles, Davis said. Homes were not just flooded but torn from their foundations and obliterated. Cars were tossed across roads. The hospital, already busy with COVID-19 patients, is now caring for those injured in the storm, according to Chief Grant Gillespie of the Waverly Department of Public Safety.
When Ryan Amell’s wife posted his phone number on Facebook on Saturday and said he was setting out on the water to rescue people in his small aluminum duck-hunting boat, he was immediately messaged by dozens in desperation.
A mother sent him a photo of herself in chest-deep water, her child on the kitchen countertop trying to avoid the rising stream. He got texts from people asking him to save their older loved ones who could not swim. There were so many calls that his phone shut down and froze, but not before he answered one from a boy who, through tears, asked if he could please save his disabled grandmother.
He would rescue six people, but he still finds it difficult to sleep at night.
“I should’ve tried harder,” said Amell, 31. “I keep replaying it in my head.”
Many residents were quick to express their gratitude, even after being gutted by loss. As Annetta Sykes sat on her front porch on a sweltering afternoon, volunteers hauled her mud-specked refrigerator down her steps and threw it on a growing pile of furniture, appliances and carpets. Strangers passing through the neighborhood brought her water and helped to clear out her house. She was grateful for them. She was also grateful to God.
“You know by God’s grace you’re going to come out on the other side,” she said.
There was no question that rebuilding the community would be daunting, but there was also a looming concern about whether people would want to rebuild. Many said they could not bear to face such trauma again.
“I don’t want to worry when it starts raining if there’s going to be a flood,” said Sykes, who wonders if she should remain in the house where she has lived for 17 years.
“I will never be in this city again when it rains,” Owen said. “Nobody who wasn’t in it can ever understand it.”