NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Nashville braced for more deaths Monday as the flooded Cumberland River continued to swell, sending muddy water rushing through neighborhoods and into parts of the historic heart of Music City after a destructive line of weekend storms killed 22 people in Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky.
The flash floods caught the city off-guard, and thousands of residents and tourists were forced to flee homes and hotels as the river rapidly spilled over its banks. Using motor boats, jet skis and canoes, authorities and volunteers rescued residents trapped in flooded homes on Monday, some which looked like islands surround by dark brown river water. Eleven of the 12 people killed in Tennessee drowned, including six in Nashville.
Country music's landmark, The Grand Ole Opry House, was flooded with several feet of water, forcing managers to seek alternate space for upcoming shows. It wasn't clear how much water was in the concert hall, which is part of the large Gaylord Opryland Hotel complex along the river northeast of downtown, but at least 10 feet of water flooded the nearby hotel.
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 the area. Floodwater spilled into some streets near the riverfront, and restaurants and bars in the warehouse district were closed.
Water seeped into a mechanical room in the basement of the Country Music Hall of Fame, though it was not immediately clear if there was any damage. Two blocks away, the historic Ryman Auditorium, longtime former home of the Grand Ole Opry, was in no immediate danger nor were many of the country music recording studios, located about a mile west of downtown.
On the east side of the river at LP Field, where the Tennessee Titans play, water covered the field and surrounding parking lot.
“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 more than 11 feet above flood stage, and officials worried they may find more bodies in the rising floodwaters.
Thousands of people took refuge overnight in emergency shelters, including about 1,500 guests at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel 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. A life-sized Elvis statue, missing his guitar, was laying on its back in the parking lot of the Wax Museum of the Stars near Opryland Hotel. 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.”'
Lucy Owens, 46, said she had followed directions to stay inside with her 21-year-old son at their home near Opryland when she heard her neighborhood was being evacuated Sunday night. She and her son tried to escape in her truck, but she couldn't even drive to her mailbox because the water was so high.
She said she screamed for help and a police officer came and took her and son to a point where a boat could rescue them. By then, water was up to her ribcage.
“I got no notice. No one said nothing about evacuating. I did what they said and stayed put. I didn't get out. I didn't drive.Then it just all happened so fast,” she said.
Floodwaters swallowed up hundreds of homes including 45-year-old Lisa Blackmon's in the suburb of Bellevue on the west side of Nashville. Water was up to her knees inside her house when a neighbor rushed her out Sunday. Blackmon said she feared she had nothing left in her home. She said she had no flood insurance and lost her job at a trucking company last December.
“I know God doesn't give us more than we can take,” she said. “But I'm at my breaking point.”
The Cumberland flooded quickly after the weekend's storms dumped more than 13 inches of rain in Nashville over two days. That nearly doubled the previous record of 6.68 inches of rain that fell in the wake of Hurricane Fredrick in 1979.
The storms, which also spawned deadly tornadoes, killed at least 12 people in Tennessee – including one person killed by a tornado in the western part of the state – six in Mississippi and four in Kentucky.
Three of the people killed in Mississippi died when high winds believed to be tornados hit their homes; the other three were killed in weather-related traffic accidents. Four weather-related deaths were also reported in Kentucky, including one man whose truck ran off the road and into a flooded creek.
Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen got a bird's eye view of the flooding damage during a helicopter tour of the area on Monday. As he crossed the Tennessee River and neared the hard-hit area of Madison County, flood waters were so deep that the tops of trees made the land looked like islands.
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 deep, or 11 feet above flood stage.
Much of the damage from flooding was done in outlying areas of Nashville and across the middle and western parts of Tennessee. Rescues turned dramatic over the weekend with homeowners plucked off roofs and pregnant women airlifted off a waterlogged interstate.
The rain ended Monday but there will likely be weeks of cleanup. Though there was no official estimate, it was clear thousands of homes had been damaged or destroyed by flooding and tornados. Emily Petro, with the Red Cross in Nashville, said the agency was sheltering about 2,000 people across Tennessee – more than half in Nashville.
Most schools in middle Tennessee were closed Monday and many universities in the Nashville area postponed final exams.
In Nashville, even the state's own emergency operations center wasn't immune. It took up to a foot of water below a false floor, forcing officials to relocate to an auxiliary command center.
“I've never seen it this high,” said emergency official Donnie Smith, who's lived in Nashville 45 years. “I'm sure that it's rained this hard at one time, but never for this much of an extended period.”
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)