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At Least 4 Dead, 130 Rescued As Nashville Sees Worst Flooding In Over A Decade

A car that was carried by floodwaters leans against a tree in a creek in Nashville, Tenn., on Sunday. Heavy rainfall flooded roads, submerged vehicles and left many people in need of rescue.
Mark Humphrey
A car that was carried by floodwaters leans against a tree in a creek in Nashville, Tenn., on Sunday. Heavy rainfall flooded roads, submerged vehicles and left many people in need of rescue.

Authorities in Nashville, Tenn., said four people were killed and 130 rescued after near-record levels of rainfall caused significant flooding across the region.

The Nashville Office of Emergency Management said in a Sunday morning update that emergency responders were continuing to make rescues in the aftermath of the storm, which drenched the area in a total of 7 inches of rain.

"Even though it looks beautiful outside, we still want people to be cautious and stay aware, stay alert, stay alive," Nashville Fire Department Director William Swann said at an early afternoon press conference.

The downpour had subsided in most of Middle Tennessee as of midday Sunday, according to the National Weather Servicein Nashville. But parts of the region remain under a flash flood watch through the evening and officials are asking the public to stay vigilant as rising creeks and rivers pose a continuing flood risk.

"Continue to avoid flooded roadways and refrain from swimming or walking through flood waters," the agency said in a Facebook post. "Not only could you be unexpectedly swept away, but that water could contain chemicals and sewage."

Some 1,700 customers remain without power as of early Sunday afternoon, down from 4,600 earlier in the morning, Nashville Mayor John Cooper said. He added that first responders are still asking residents to avoid certain areas, and road closures and other conditions can be monitored on an emergency response website.

The Metro Nashville Police Department said they have found the remains of four people believed to have been killed in the floods. One man was recovered from a sedan submerged by water overflowing from a creek; a second man was found deceased on a golf course and is believed to have been "swept away by high waters after getting out of a car that ran off the road into a culvert."

Police later said they had discovered the bodies of a man and a woman near a homeless camp, in a wooded area that was impacted by flooding from a nearby creek.

At the press conference, Nashville Police Chief John Drake attributed three of those deaths to flooding from Seven Mile Creek and provided the ages of the confirmed victims. He said the man submerged in his vehicle was 70 years old, the man at the golf course was 65, and the victims at the homeless encampment were a 46-year-old woman and 64-year-old man.

Drake also noted that one officer is in the hospital recovering from injuries after being swept away by currents during an attempted water rescue. He said the officer managed to get out of his car and cling to a tree until help arrived, and that a citizen who had tried to provide aid was also stranded in the process.

"We're not out of the woods yet," Drake warned at the briefing. "This is still ongoing. Although the water may not be as eventful today, we still have to pay attention to it."

The mayor also said that the Cumberland River was expected to reach its flood stage of 40 feet around 1 p.m. central time, and hit its peak of 41.9 feet just after midnight. The Harpeth River passed its 20-foot flood stage early Sunday morning and was expected to crest at 27.4 feet around 7 p.m. local time.

The NWS had tweeted earlier in the morning that numerous water rescues were underway across south Nashville, calling the situation life-threatening and citing reports of "people clinging to trees."

Just two feet of moving water can sweep a vehicle away, the emergency management office warned. In an update released at 7:30 a.m. local time, it said the Nashville Fire Department had rescued at least 130 people from cars, apartments and houses.

In one instance, authorities said, personnel rescued at least 15 people stranded in a building whose "structure was compromised due to a mudslide."

First responders also helped rescue some 40 dogs from Camp Bow Wow, a day care center, and transferred them safely to a nearby facility.

The office of emergency management is working with the American Red Cross to provide shelter for people displaced by the floods, officials said. Cooper said at the press briefing that first responders were walking creek beds and working with the Red Cross to canvass affected neighborhoods.

"As always, Nashvillians help one another during difficult times. This is no exception," Cooper said. "And please mask up, reach out and lend your neighbors a helping hand."

In hard-hit Rutherford County, the sheriff's office said Sunday morning that it was responding to reports of water rescues and people driving on water-covered roads, and urged people not to remove warning signs or caution tape.

Forty-nine roads are completely closed, 35 are partially closed and 12 have been reopened, according to an online dashboard updated by the county.

Nashville-area residents took to social media to share photos and videos of flooded roads, submerged vehicles and cleanup efforts getting underway on Sunday.

Officials are drawing comparisons to the historic flooding in Nashville and the surrounding area that killed at least 29 people and displaced thousands in May 2010.

"The rainfall we got yesterday and overnight made this one of wettest 24-hour periods in Nashville's history," National Weather Service meteorologist Sam Shamburger told the Tennessean. "It's the worst flooding event we've seen since the May 2010 flood. But the main difference is this event affected a much smaller area than the 2010 flood."

The NWS said early Sunday that Nashville's two-day rainfall total of 6.69 inches constitutes the second largest in its history, surpassing a previous record set in September 1979 and coming in behind the 13.57 inches recorded on May 1-2, 2010.

The Harpeth River is forecast to rise to 34.8 feet on Sunday night, the agency added, which would be the third-highest stage on record. Aerial photos taken by the Franklin Fire Department around 11:30 a.m. local time show the river already starting to overflow.

Scott Potter, the director of Metro Water Services, said at the briefing that water facilities were safe and he is unconcerned about the effect of the rising river levels, citing predicted peaks that are lower than those in May 2010 and improvements that the facilities have made since then.

The mayor also noted that lessons from the 2010 flood helped the city prepare for an "improved flood response" in the form of well-trained swift water rescue teams and better real-time information sharing between metro departments.

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.