By Chris Talbott and Sheila Burke Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Nashville braced for more deaths today as the flooded Cumberland River continued to swell, sending muddy water rushing through neighborhoods — and flooding the The Grand Ole Opry — after a destructive line of weekend storms killed 26 people in Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky.
The flash floods caught the city off-guard, and thousands of residents and tourists were forced to flee homes and hotels as the river rapidly spilled over its banks. Using motor boats, jet skis and canoes, authorities and volunteers rescued residents trapped in flooded homes today, some which looked like islands surround by dark brown river water.
Country music’s landmark, The Grand Ole Opry House, was flooded with several feet of water, forcing managers to seek alternate space for upcoming shows. It wasn’t clear how much water was in the concert hall, which is part of the large Gaylord Opryland Hotel complex along the river northeast of downtown, but at least 10 feet of water flooded the nearby hotel.
On the east side of the river at LP Field, where the Tennessee Titans play, water covered the field and surrounding parking lot.
“It’s shocking to see it this way, but it was an incredible storm,” Mayor Karl Dean said as he surveyed the downtown flooding. The Cumberland River was expected to crest this afternoon at more than 11 feet above flood stage, and officials worried they may find more bodies in the rising floodwaters.
Thousands of people took refuge overnight in emergency shelters, including about 1,500 guests at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel who spent the night at a high school to escape the flooding.
German tourists Gerdi and Kurt Bauerle, both 70, said resort staff suddenly started rushing people out of the area Sunday night.
“We had just finished eating and suddenly they said: ‘Go! Go! Go!”’ said Gerdi Bauerle, who was visiting from Munich. “And we said ‘Wait, we haven’t even paid.”’
Lucy Owens, 46, said she had followed directions to stay inside with her 21-year-old son at their home near Opryland when she heard her neighborhood was being evacuated Sunday night. She and her son tried to escape in her truck, but she couldn’t even drive to her mailbox because the water was so high.
She said she screamed for help and a police officer came and took her and son to a point where a boat could rescue them. By then, water was up to her ribcage.
“I got no notice. No one said nothing about evacuating. I did what they said and stayed put. I didn’t get out. I didn’t drive. Then it just all happened so fast,” she said.
Floodwaters swallowed hundreds of homes including 45-year-old Lisa Blackmon’s in the suburb of Bellevue on the west side of Nashville. Water was up to her knees inside her house when a neighbor rushed her out Sunday. Blackmon said she feared she had nothing left in her home. She said she had no flood insurance and lost her job at a trucking company last December.
“I know God doesn’t give us more than we can take,” she said. “But I’m at my breaking point.”
The Cumberland flooded quickly after the weekend’s storms dumped more than 13 inches of rain in Nashville over two days. That nearly doubled the previous record of 6.68 inches of rain that fell in the wake of Hurricane Fredrick in 1979.
The storm also spawned deadly tornadoes.
The rain ended today but there will likely be weeks of cleanup. Though there was no official estimate, it was clear thousands of homes had been damaged or destroyed by flooding and tornados. Emily Petro, with the Red Cross in Nashville, said the agency was sheltering about 2,000 people across Tennessee — more than half in Nashville.