At least 22 people were killed and rescue crews searched desperately on Sunday amid shattered homes and tangled debris for dozens of people still missing after record-breaking rain sent floodwaters surging through Middle Tennessee
Saturday's flooding in rural areas took out roads, cellphone towers and telephone lines, leaving families uncertain about whether their loved ones survived the unprecedented deluge. Emergency workers were searching door to door, said Kristi Brown, a coordinator for health and safety supervisor with Humphreys County Schools.
Many of the missing live in the neighborhoods where the water rose the fastest, said Humphreys County Sheriff Chris Davis, who confirmed the 22 fatalities in his county.
"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.
The dead included twin babies who were swept from their father's arms. The sheriff of the county of about 18,000 people some 96 kilometers west of Nashville said he lost one of his best friends.
Up to 43 centimeters of rain fell in Humphreys County in less than 24 hours on Saturday, shattering the Tennessee record for one-day rainfall by more than 8cm, the National Weather Service said.
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee toured the area, calling it a "devastating picture of loss and heartache." He stopped on Main Street in Waverly where some homes were washed off their foundations and people were sifting through their water-logged possessions. All around the county were debris from wrecked cars, demolished businesses and homes.
Shirley Foster cried as the governor walked up. She said she just learned a friend from her church was dead.
"I thought I was over the shock of all this. I'm just torn up over my friend. My house is nothing, but my friend is gone," Foster told the governor.
The hardest-hit areas saw double the rain that area of Middle Tennessee had in the worst previous-flooding. Lines of storms moved over the area for hours, wringing out a record amount of moisture – a scenario scientists warn may be more common because of global warming.
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.
Klein said 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," Klein said. "People were pulling out bodies of people who had drowned and didn't make it out."
At a news conference on Tropical Storm Henri's impact on New England, President Joe Biden offered condolences to the people of Tennessee and directed federal disaster officials to talk with the governor and offer assistance.