NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Cumberland River finally began receding Tuesday, exposing mud-caked homes and submerged cars as officials searched door to door for more victims of a record-busting flash flood and weekend storm already blamed for nearly 30 deaths.
No new fatalities were reported Tuesday and it was unclear whether anyone remained missing.
The weekend deluge swept many motorists to their deaths even after forecasters and Nashville's mayor warned people not to drive. But staying put carried frightening consequences for others as the swollen Cumberland and its tributaries started pouring into thousands of homes.
"I kept watching TV that was my source, and (Mayor) Karl Dean was saying stay put, don't drive," Nashville resident Cheri Newlin said. Police eventually told Newlin to evacuate on Monday, but by then, the water was so close that she had to flee by boat, leaving her three cats behind. She is now at a shelter and hasn't been able to get back to her house to check on her pets and assess damage.
By Tuesday, the flash floods were blamed in the deaths of 17 people in Tennessee alone, including nine in Nashville. At least nine people died in vehicles in Tennessee. Others were found in their homes or yards, including an elderly couple discovered in their Nashville home. A 21-year-old Nashville resident died when he tried to wade the waters in front of his home but got swept away in the current.
Sections of downtown and some of Music City's popular tourist attractions remained flooded Tuesday, including the Grand Ole Opry House and the Country Music Hall of Fame. Full damage estimates were unavailable, but the Opryland Hotel alone suffered more than $75 million in damage; it will be closed for three to six months.
The storm dumped more than a foot of rain from Saturday to Sunday, sending floodwaters rising rapidly in the middle of the night.
Residents in some of the hardest hit areas said they didn't know if they should flee or stick it out for fear that if they left their homes, they would be swept away by the muddy waters that turned streets into virtual rivers.
"We had less than an hour to get out," said Amanda Fatherree. She left her home on Nashville's west side Sunday after her mother yelled that the Harpeth River, normally located a quarter-mile away, had crept up to her back porch.
Nashville resident Judy Kestner had thought everything was going to be OK Saturday night when she went to bed. The water in her backyard had started receding, and there were no warnings of anything other than flash floods.
But then the howlings of her Siberian husky awoke her at 3 a.m. Sunday. The dog had been trapped in about 3 feet of rising water.
"It was up to her nose. She was barely getting air," said Kestner, 54.
Robert Strunk, a retired computer designer who now works at the Opry House, wasn't told to leave until nearly midnight Saturday, and by then, it was too late to drive. Instead, he waded through water up to his thighs carrying his two dogs away from his Nashville home.
"It's hard enough to walk with two dogs. I'm 77 years old. I couldn't carry clothes or anything," he said.
Officials said they made the right call to advise people to stay inside, pointing to a higher number of deaths on the roads and outside than in homes.
"At this point I'm not going to second-guess and say what should or could have been done differently," Mayor Dean said Tuesday.
Hundreds of people had been rescued by boat and canoe from their flooded homes over the past few days. Those rescue operations wound down in Nashville on Tuesday, though it remained unclear how many — if any — people remained missing in Tennessee. Police spokeswoman Rachel Vance said rescuers were going door-to-door in flooded areas to search for more drowning victims but no new deaths were reported as of Tuesday evening.
Authorities in south-central Kentucky were searching for a kayaker who was last seen Monday afternoon in the swollen Green River.
More than 13.5 inches of rainfall were recorded in Nashville on Saturday and Sunday, according to the National Weather Service, more than double the previous two-day record.
"You could tell as Saturday went along that this was a totally different event than normal," Dean said Tuesday. "And of course it was very clear by Sunday that we were in a very serious situation."
Flash flood watches were issued on Friday, but National Weather Service meteorologist Larry Vannozzi said the service also took the rare step on Saturday to relay an emergency message warning people to stay off the roads.
"We didn't just barely beat the record and we didn't beat it by a decent amount. We absolutely crushed the record for two-day rainfall in Nashville," he said. "I don't want to seem too dramatic here, but this is off-the-charts record stuff."
The water swelled most of the area's lakes, minor rivers, creeks, streams and drainage systems far beyond capacity. Much of that water then drained into the Cumberland, which snakes through Nashville.
Bridges were washed out and thousands of homes were damaged. As the water began to recede late Monday, bodies were recovered from homes, a yard and a wooded area outside a Nashville supermarket.
The Grand Ole Opry said it was moving its shows to alternate concert halls as water damaged parts of the arena. Floodwaters also edged into the Country Music Hall of Fame and LP Field, where the NFL's Tennessee Titans play. Ryman Auditorium, the longtime former home of the Grand Ole Opry, appeared to be OK.
Businesses along Nashville's riverfront lost electricity Tuesday because of the flooding, and restaurants and bars clustered on a downtown street popular with tourists were closed. Laurie Parker, a spokeswoman for Nashville Electric Service, said a main circuit failed before dawn, knocking out power to downtown businesses in a 24-square-block area. Parker said the power in that district would be out the rest of the week.
The weekend's storms that spawned tornadoes along with flash flooding also killed six people in Mississippi and four in Kentucky. One person was killed by a tornado in western Tennessee.
Associated Press writers Travis Loller, Lucas L. Johnson II, Teresa Walker, Randall Dickerson and Joe Edwards in Nashville; and Janet Cappiello Blake in Louisville, Ky., contributed to this report.