By Chris Talbott/The Associated Press
NASHVILLE — The dark waters of the Cumberland River slowly started to ebb Tuesday as residents who frantically fled the deadly flash floods returned home to find mud-caked floors and soggy furniture. Rescuers prayed they would not find more bodies as the floodwaters receded.
The river and its tributaries had flooded parts of middle Tennessee after a record-breaking weekend storm dumped more than a foot of rain in two days, rapidly spilling water into homes, roads and some of Music City’s best-known attractions.
At least 28 people were killed in Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky by either floodwaters or tornadoes. Water submerged parts the Grand Ole Opry House, considered by many to be the heart of country music, and the nearby Opryland Hotel could be closed for up to six months.
The flash flooding caught many here by surprise, and efforts to warn residents to not drive on flooded streets were hampered by power outages. As the water began to recede, bodies were recovered late Monday from homes, a yard and a wooded area outside a Nashville supermarket.
By Tuesday, the flash floods were blamed in the deaths of 17 people in Tennessee alone, including nine in Nashville. Authorities initially said 10 people were killed by floods in Nashville, but on Tuesday, they said one of those people died of natural causes.
Hundreds of people had been rescued by boat and canoe from their flooded homes over the past few days. Those rescue operations were winding down in Nashville on Tuesday, though emergency management officials were checking a report of a house floating in a northern neighborhood, trying to determine if anyone was in it.
It remained unclear how many — if any — people were missing in Tennessee. Authorities in southcentral Kentucky searched Tuesday for a kayaker who was last seen Monday afternoon in the swollen Green River.
“Those in houses that have been flooded and some of those more remote areas, do we suspect we will find more people? Probably so,” Nashville Deputy Fire Chief Kim Lawson said. “We certainly hope that it’s not a large number.”
The Cumberland River also deluged some of Nashville’s most important revenue sources: the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center, whose 1,500 guests were whisked to a shelter, the adjacent Opry Mills Mall, and the Grand Ole Opry House.
Parts of the hotel remained flooded on Tuesday, and officials estimated it could stay closed for three to six months with more than $75 million in damage.
At the Grand Ole Opry, which is moving its shows to alternate concert halls, water reached the stage and the first floor of the Minnie Pearl building was flooded over the doors, said customer service representative Rita Helms. The Acuff Theater had four floors flooded, and the Gaslight Theater also was under water, she said.
Floodwaters also edged into the Country Music Hall of Fame and LP Field where the Tennessee Titans play, though the Ryman Auditorium — the longtime former home of the Grand Ole Opry — appeared to be OK. It was not immediately known how much damage the Hall of Fame or LP Field received, though the Titans’ logo, which had been submerged by floodwaters on Monday, was once again visible on the stadium’s field Tuesday.
Businesses along Nashville’s riverfront lost electricity early Tuesday, 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, including the 33-story AT&T Building, a Hilton hotel, the arena where the Nashville Predators NHL team plays and honky-tonks in the country music tourism district.
Parker said the power in that district would be out the rest of the week.
“It will be Friday at the earliest,” she said, “depending on how fast the water level falls.”
In one neighborhood west of downtown, residents scoured through debris, trying to determine how much they’ve lost.
Luke Oakman finally got a look at the room he and his wife designed for their 11-month-old daughter after the family fled their home on Sunday.
It was ruined. Baby toys and books sat on a mud-coated floor and a wooden bed leaned back against a wall. A rocking chair was propped up by the child’s dresser that had been knocked over.
“I broke down when I saw that,” the 32-year-old lab worker said.
Damage estimates range into the tens of millions of dollars. Gov. Phil Bredesen declared 52 of Tennessee’s 95 counties disaster areas after finishing an aerial tour from Nashville to western Tennessee during which he saw flooding so extensive that treetops looked like islands. The flooding also prompted election officials to delay Nashville’s local primary, which had been set for Tuesday.
The Cumberland topped out around 6 p.m. Monday at 51.9 feet, about 12 feet above flood stage — the highest it’s reached since 1937. It began to recede just in time to spare the city’s only remaining water treatment plant.
The severity of the storms had caught everyone off guard. More than 13.5 inches of rainfall were recorded Saturday and Sunday, according to the National Weather Service, making for a new two-day record that doubled the previous mark.
The water swelled most of the area’s lakes, minor rivers, creeks, streams and drainage systems far beyond capacity. It flowed with such force that bridges were washed out and thousands of homes were damaged. Much of that water then drained into the Cumberland, which snakes through Nashville.
The weekend storms also killed six people in Mississippi and four in Kentucky, including one man whose truck ran off the road and into a flooded creek. One person was killed by a tornado in western Tennessee.
About 30 National Guard troops assisted local authorities in southcentral Kentucky on Tuesday, where flooding washed out roads and bridges and shuttered post offices, schools and government buildings.
“It’s serious out there still,” said Mark Marraccini, spokesman for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife. “These waters are very dangerous.”
Associated Press writers Travis Loller, Kristin M. Hall, Lucas L. Johnson II, Teresa Walker, Sheila Burke, Randall Dickerson and Joe Edwards in Nashville; and Janet Cappiello Blake in Louisville, Ky., contributed to this report.