At least 22 people were confirmed dead on Sunday as rescue crews searched desperately amid shattered homes for dozens still missing after record-breaking rain sent floodwaters surging through parts of Tennessee.
The flooding in rural areas on Saturday took out roads, cellphone towers and telephone lines, leaving families uncertain about whether loved ones survived. Many of the missing live in neighborhoods where the water rose fastest, Humphreys county sheriff Chris Davis said.
At the White House in Washington, Joe Biden said he expressed his “deepest condolences for the sudden and tragic loss of life through this flash flood”.
“I know we reached out to the community,” the president said. “We stand ready to offer them support. I’ve asked the administrator [of the Federal Emergency Management Agency] to speak to Governor [Bill] Lee of Tennessee right away and will offer any assistance they need for this terrible moment.”
The dead included twin toddlers swept from their father’s arms, according to family members, and a foreman at a ranch owned by the county music star Loretta Lynn. Davis, sheriff of the county of about 18,000 people some 60 miles west of Nashville, said he lost one of his best friends.
Up to 17in of rain fell in less than 24 hours, appearing to shatter the Tennessee record for one-day rainfall by more than 3in, the National Weather Service (NWS) said.
Governor Lee toured the area, stopping on Main Street in Waverly where some homes were washed off their foundations and people were sifting though water-logged possessions. 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,” she told Lee. “I’m just tore up over my friend. My house is nothing, but my friend is gone.”
The hardest-hit areas saw double the rain the area had in the previous worst-case scenario for flooding, meteorologists said. Lines of storms moved over the area for hours, wringing out a record amount of moisture – a scenario scientists have warned may be more common because of global warming.
Downpours turned creeks into rapids. Business owner Kansas Klein said he stood on a bridge on Saturday in the town of 4,500 people and saw two girls holding on to a puppy and clinging to a wooden board as they swept past, the current too fast for anyone to grab them. Klein said he heard that a girl and a puppy had been rescued downstream, and that another girl was also saved, but he wasn’t sure it was them.
By Sunday, the floodwaters were gone, leaving wrecked cars and demolished businesses and homes.
“It was amazing how quick it came and how quick it left,” Klein said.
The Humphreys county sheriff office’s Facebook page filled with people looking for friends and family. Online fundraising pages asked for help for funeral expenses, including for seven-month-old twins yanked from their father’s arms as he tried to escape.
Klein said dozens of buildings in a low-income housing area, Brookside, appeared to have borne the brunt of a flash flood from Trent Creek.
“It was devastating: buildings were knocked down, half of them were destroyed,” Klein said. “People were pulling out bodies.”
The foreman at Lynn’s ranch, Wayne Spears, died while checking on animals, Sheriff Davis said.
“He’s out at his barn and next thing you know, he goes from checking animals in the barn to hanging on in the barn to people seeing him floating down the creek. And that’s how fast it had come up,” the sheriff said.
A photo taken by someone at the ranch showed Spears in a cowboy hat clinging to a pillar, brown and churning water risen to his chest.
“Wayne’s just one of those guys, he just does everything for everybody, if there’s a job to do,” said his friend Michael Pate, who met Spears at the ranch 15 years ago.
At the Cash Saver grocery, employees stood on desks, registers and a flower rack as waters from a creek usually 400ft away rushed into the store. They tried to break through the celling into the attic but couldn’t, store co-owner David Hensley said.
The waters stopped rising just as the situation was getting dire. A rescue boat came by. “We told him that if there’s somebody else out there you can go get them, we think we’re OK,” Hensley said.
Just east of Waverly, the town of McEwen was pummeled with 17.02in of rain, smashing the state’s 24-hour record of 13.6in from 1982, according to the NWS.
A flash flood watch was issued before the rain started, with forecasters saying 4in to 6in inches was possible. The worst storm recorded in the area only dropped 9in, said Krissy Hurley, an NWS meteorologist in Nashville.
“Forecasting almost a record is something we don’t do very often,” Hurley said. “Double the amount we’ve ever seen was almost unfathomable.”
Scientific research has determined that extreme rain events will become more frequent because of man-made climate change. Hurley said it was impossible to know its exact role in the flood, but noted that her office dealt with floods that used to be expected maybe once every 100 years last September, south of Nashville, and in March, closer to the city.
“We had an incredible amount of water in the atmosphere,” Hurley said of Saturday. “Thunderstorms developed and moved across the same area over and over and over.”
The problem isn’t limited to Tennessee. A federal study found man-made climate change doubles the chances of the types of heavy downpours that in August 2016 dumped 26in of rain around Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Those floods killed at least 13 people and damaged 150,000 homes.