NASHVILLE — Officials in Nashville braced for more deaths Monday as the flooded Cumberland River continued to swell, sending muddy water rushing through neighbourhoods and threatening the historic heart of Music City after a destructive line of weekend storms killed 21 people in the U.S. South.
Using motor boats and canoes, authorities and volunteers rescued scores of residents trapped in flooded homes, some which looked like islands surround by dark river water.
The downtown — home of a historic warehouse district that dates back to the 1800s and is now occupied by bars and restaurants — was nearly deserted after authorities evacuated residents and tourists.
Floodwater spilled into some streets near the riverfront, and restaurants and bars in the warehouse district were closed. A few blocks away, the historic Ryman Auditorium, longtime former home of the Grand Ole Opry, was in no immediate danger.
“It’s shocking to see it this way, but it was an incredible storm,” Mayor Karl Dean said as he surveyed the downtown flooding.
The Cumberland River was expected to crest Monday afternoon at 3 1/2 metres above flood stage, and officials worried they may find more bodies in the rising floodwaters.
Thousands of people took refuge in emergency shelters, including about 1,500 guests at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center who spent the night at a high school to escape the flooding.
The resort’s hotel, located northeast of downtown along the river, had “significant water” inside and would remain closed indefinitely, said hotel spokeswoman Kim Keelor.
German tourists Gerdi and Kurt Bauerle, both 70, said resort staff suddenly started rushing people out of the area Sunday night.
“We had just finished eating and suddenly they said: ‘Go! Go! Go!”’ said Gerdi Bauerle, who was visiting from Munich. “And we said ‘Wait, we haven’t even paid.”’
The storms, which also spawned deadly tornadoes, killed at least 12 people in Tennessee, six in Mississippi and three in Kentucky.
Eleven in Tennessee drowned, including at least six in Nashville, and one was killed by a tornado in western Tennessee.
Three of the people killed in Mississippi died when high winds believed to be tornados hit their homes; the other three were killed in what authorities said were weather-related traffic accidents.
Three weather-related deaths were also reported in Kentucky, including one man whose truck ran off the road on Sunday into a flooded creek.
The weekend deaths came on the heels of a tornado in Arkansas that killed a woman and injured about two dozen people Friday.
A week ago, 10 people were killed by a tornado from a separate storm in western Mississippi.
Bredesen said officials hoped for the best, but knew there might be more deaths reported Monday as authorities got their first real look at the damage after a weekend filled with frantic rescues.
“This is going to go on for a while,” Bredesen said. “It’s going to take a while for the water to recede and us to get down into this. It’s going to take several days for this to get back to anything near normal.”
The Cumberland River already reached record levels since an early 1960s flood control project was put in place. With so much water inundating its tributaries, it was difficult to gauge whether the river would stop at 50 feet (15 metres) deep, or 11 feet (3 1/2 metres) above flood stage.
The rain ended Monday but there will likely be weeks of cleanup for residents and public works employees alike. It was clear thousands of homes had been damaged or destroyed by flooding and tornados.