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‘Our People Need Help’: Devastation in Tennessee, as Experts Warn of More Flooding

At least 21 people were confirmed dead and about 10 others remained missing after flash floods in Tennessee.Credit…Houston Cofield for The New York Times

Aug. 23, 2021Updated 7:51 p.m. ET

WAVERLY, Tenn. — With floodwaters rising rapidly, 15-year-old Lily Bryant and her older sister managed to find some wooden debris to cling to, but it offered only short-term relief. The makeshift raft hit a tree and split in two.

“Lily went one way and her sister went the other way, and no one has seen her since,” said Tarry Lynn Gillinger Holderman, Lily’s aunt. “She was washed away because the current was so strong.”

Lily’s sister, Kailynne, 19, made it to safety; Lily is missing.

Kailynne, Ms. Holderman said, is devastated. “She blames herself.”

The scale of the destruction from the weekend’s storm in Tennessee came into grim relief on Monday, as emergency workers and those who escaped the worst spent the day searching for loved ones. At least 21 people were confirmed dead and about 10 others remained missing, officials said, in catastrophic flash flooding that climate scientists warned will become only more common.

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Lily Bryant, 15, is missing following the flooding in Waverly, Tenn.

“This is exactly the type of event we expect to see with increasing frequency in a warming climate,” said Gary Lackmann, a professor of atmospheric science at North Carolina State University.

The Tennessee disaster came just days after at least five people were killed in flash floods in North Carolina in the wake of Tropical Storm Fred. In July, extraordinary floods in Germany sent water crashing through the streets, killing dozens and causing widespread devastation.

Some scientists caution, however, that it can be difficult to determine whether climate change is the driving force behind any individual flood or is responsible for making it more catastrophic, including in Tennessee. Flooding is a result both of heavy rainfall and of the way water is managed — through dams, levees or retention ponds — as well as a landscape’s hydrology, the way that water flows, collects and runs off the land.

The flooding in Tennessee struck a rural area of rivers, creeks and rolling woods in and around Humphreys County, about 90 minutes west of Nashville. Up to 17 inches of rain fell on Saturday, shattering the state’s 24-hour record by more than 3 inches.

“Our people need help,” Chris Davis, the Humphreys County sheriff, said at a news briefing. “We’re going to be overwhelmed for the next 30 days at least. Overwhelmed.”

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The flood struck a rural area of rivers, creeks and rolling woods in and around Humphreys County, about 90 minutes west of Nashville. Credit…Houston Cofield for The New York Times

One reason the flood was so deadly is that such smaller-scale storms can be trickier to forecast than large weather systems like hurricanes, which are tracked in part by radar and satellite data. Any heavy rainfall, which produces heat, can cause the forecasting models to perform poorly.

“It’s sort of a worst-case scenario because it’s a small weather system that happens and develops quickly,” Dr. Lackmann said. “For these kinds of events, it’s going to be really difficult to get much lead time or forecast warning.”

And attribution studies — a type of research that aims to establish links between climate change and specific extreme weather events — can take time.

“It’s not easy to attribute a single weather event to climate change,” Dr. Lackmann said. But, he added, “when you start seeing these events happening more frequently, it becomes more unambiguous.”

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Friends of those who went missing sifted through debris in a ditch in Waverly.Credit…Houston Cofield for The New York Times

In Waverly, the epicenter of the destruction, anguish rippled through the closely knit community of about 4,100 people.

Terri Owen recalled standing on her toes amid the storm on Saturday, struggling to keep her head above the rising water. She could see the woman across the street clinging to a pillar on her front porch, her cries for help punctuated by piercing screams. Two days later, the woman’s voice was still in her head.

“We can’t help you!” Ms. Owen remembered shouting back.

The water was furious. Stoves, refrigerators and cars whipped by. The pillar came loose, Ms. Owen said, and the screaming intensified. The entire house was swooped off its moorings and carried down the block. The woman died, and so did her adult son.

“God had no more favor on me than the woman who lost her life,” Ms. Owen said, pulling down her sunglasses to wipe her eyes as she sat on her friend’s muddy front porch. “I was just in a different place.”

Many were straining on Monday to grasp all that had been lost.

The devastation could be seen for about 10 miles, Sheriff Davis said. Homes were not just flooded but torn from their foundations and obliterated. Cars were tossed across roads. The hospital, already busy with Covid-19 patients, is now caring for those injured in the storm, according to Chief Grant Gillespie of the Waverly Department of Public Safety.

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New names were added to the list of people missing on Monday and others were reported safe by family members, officials said.Credit…Houston Cofield for The New York Times

School has been canceled for at least a week, officials said. Many roads and bridges remained closed to traffic on Monday. Several thousand homes were still without electricity.

The number of victims and potential victims fluctuated as new names were added to the list of people missing and others were reported safe by family members, officials said. Early Monday morning, the list of missing people was up to 40; by afternoon, it had been reduced to about 10, according to Chief Gillespie.

Officials said the search teams, which descended on Humphreys County from across Tennessee, were pushing forward with urgency to find those whose whereabouts remained unknown, fearful of the death toll growing as time passes. Chief Gillespie told reporters that crews were employing heavy equipment to chew through mountains of debris where they feared that people might still be trapped.

“That’s a painstaking process,” he said.

Beyond the human toll, the physical devastation has been nearly impossible to comprehend. Entire neighborhoods were shredded. Some homes that were still intact were filled with mud and the rancid stench the water left behind.

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Homes and rural roads were washed away in the flash floods.Credit…Houston Cofield for The New York Times

“I’m 61 years old,” said Amanda Capps, whose home was swamped. “There’s a lifetime of memories just gone.” Mementos handed down from her great-grandparents and grandparents were either lost in the water or caked in mud.

Many residents were quick to express their gratitude, even after being gutted by loss. As Annetta Sykes sat on her front porch on a sweltering afternoon, volunteers hauled her mud-specked refrigerator down her steps and threw it in on a growing pile of furniture, appliances and carpets. Strangers passing through the neighborhood brought her water and helped to clear out her house. She was grateful for them. She was also grateful to God.

“You know by God’s grace you’re going to come out on the other side,” she said.

There was no question that rebuilding the community would be daunting, but there was also a looming concern about whether people would want to rebuild. Many said they could not bear to face such trauma again.

“I don’t want to worry when it starts raining if there’s going to be a flood,” said Ms. Sykes, who wonders if she should remain in the house where she has lived for 17 years.

“I will never be in this city again when it rains,” Ms. Owen said. “Nobody who wasn’t in it can ever understand it.”

Giulia Heyward, Houston Cofield and Christopher Mele contributed reporting.

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