WAVERLY, Tenn. — In one moment, Rickey Larkin saw the creek running behind his home spill over its banks. The next, he said, he was engulfed by an ocean. His pickup was carried away by the currents. Then, the water came surging into his home and rose shoulder high, forcing him, his wife and their cat to cling to a mattress as a life raft.
“We prayed and we prayed it would go down,” Larkin recalled a day later, sitting outside a shelter Sunday, his voice barely registering above a whisper. “We came about a foot from drowning. I thought we were gone.”
At least 22 people have been killed and more than two dozen others remain missing Sunday after a catastrophic flash flood swept through a rural area of rivers, creeks and rolling woods about 90 minutes west of Nashville, Tennessee, authorities said. The floodwater vanished as quickly as it arrived, and left in its wake was a bewildering display of its fury and strength in a collection of rural communities in and around Humphreys County.
Homes had been picked up off their piers and dropped across the street. Bridges and roads were crumbling. Cars were mangled and trucks had been turned upside down. Chain-link fences were clogged with debris, evidence of when they were a dredge for a spontaneous river.
At a news conference on Afghanistan and extreme weather Sunday, President Joe Biden said: “I want to begin by expressing my deepest condolences for the sudden and tragic loss of life due to this flash flood. He added that he has encouraged federal emergency officials to coordinate with the state to “offer any assistance they need for this terrible moment.”
The surge of water came Saturday morning as the creeks were overwhelmed by rain. The town of McEwen, which was among the harder-hit areas of Humphreys County, recorded 17 inches of rainfall Saturday — a figure that, according to the National Weather Service, most likely set a statewide record for the most rainfall in a 24-hour span. The previous record was 13.6 inches, which was set in 1982.
In this part of Tennessee, where rivers and creeks cut through the terrain like blood vessels in a body, flooding has long been a familiar threat. But while it is difficult to link any one event to climate change, the warming of the atmosphere because of greenhouse gas emissions is contributing to more frequent extreme weather events around the world. A warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, causing more powerful rain. An Environmental Protection Agency analysis of Tennessee’s vulnerability to climate change said the state was at risk for increased flooding, among other dangers.
“Some of them described it as a tidal wave,” Buddy Frazier, the mayor of Waverly, the county seat, said in an interview Sunday morning with the Nashville television station WKRN, describing the speed and intensity of the flooding that left residents in the city of roughly 4,100 unable to flee. “It just caught everyone totally off guard yesterday.”
Suddenly, roadways became dangerous rapids and residents were besieged by water inside their homes. Some had to claw their way out through their attics to be rescued. Others were trapped in their vehicles; one truck driver said he was stuck in floodwaters for eight hours. Rescue boats were battered by debris, forcing the crews on board to halt their efforts.
Much of the community was also cut off, as roads were impassable even after the water had retreated. Jamie Schmitt was trying to get to his mother in Waverly. He tried to drive in but gave up.
He is a pilot, so instead he flew, taking photographs with his phone of vast stretches of land that had been covered by water the color of coffee stirred with creamer. He landed at the nearest airstrip and hitchhiked the 3 miles to his mother’s house, where he discovered his brother had been able to get there before him.
“The farther you went into the town, the worse it was,” his brother, Jeremiah, said.
Residents said there were warnings — official ones and text messages and calls from friends — alerting them to the possibility of flooding. But some said they did not grasp the urgency of what was about to come. For others, they did not have time to do anything but brace for it.
“No one could get out,” said Brandi Burns, the property manager of a housing complex that had been swamped. She described the harrowing image imprinted in her mind of a man caught in the water, frantically shouting for help. “It was racing water,” she said. “We could do nothing about it.”
A desperate search continued Sunday as rescue teams tried to find the dozens who remained unaccounted for. In some of the hardest-hit areas of Humphreys County, investigators were going door to door.
“Things are moving fast, and we are finding people left and right,” Rob Edwards, chief deputy of the Humphreys County Sheriff’s Office, said in an email Sunday, adding that he expected the death toll to rise.
The loss of life came as other parts of the South were still reeling from a week of violent storms that brought heavy rain and tornadoes. In North Carolina, four people were killed and four others were still missing after flash floods wiped out homes in the wake of Tropical Depression Fred last week, authorities said. It all played out as Tropical Storm Henri took aim at the Northeast before finally making landfall Sunday.
On Sunday, it was still a struggle to navigate the area, as relief groups and others tried to get into Waverly. On the roadway connecting the city to the nearest interstate highway, Beverly Davis waved down a hulking truck piled with pallets of water.
The driver had plowed past barrels closing off the road. But the pavement over a bridge had been ripped up and crumbled. “Do not put yourself in harm’s way,” she told the man, warning him that the crossing was too unstable. “I pray for you and wish you luck.”
She pointed out the only other way to Waverly she could think of, sending him and a caravan of other vehicles that trailed him on a path of mud and gravel winding for miles through dense woods and over steep hills before returning to a paved road.
The country highways leading into Waverly were littered with abandoned cars and trucks, as well as tool sheds that had ventured, in some cases, nearly a mile from their foundations. In Waverly, the windows in a shopping center had shattered. Stores had mud covered aisles, toppled shelves and waterlogged inventory.
Along the main street, volunteers handed out warm meals, bottled water and supplies. Churches had been converted into shelters. Some residents were steeling themselves to go back into their homes, uncertain of where to begin.
“It smells like death,” Burns, 43, said, describing the stench that assaulted her as soon as she stepped inside her house. “It’s a struggle.”
Richard Wheeler, a retired firefighter, said he had been out running errands Saturday morning. He returned to discover his home was in the middle of the road. He recalled past floods, including one that had water flowing underneath his home.
“This is worse than any of them,” he said. “This is the worst one.”
As he stood on the front steps of Waverly Church of Christ, one man slipped him a rolled-up $20 bill and a woman in a pink dress and clutching her Bible invited him to stay at her home. He said he was staying with his daughter who lives in a town about 10 miles away.
“When it rains, it pours,” the woman told him, “and it’s raining on you.”
After she walked off, he choked up. He lived on his own. He was already being assured of what he figured would be the case: His neighbors would take care of him. “This is a very God-loving county,” he said.
Larkin, 62, sat on the ground, his back leaning against the church hall’s brick wall, holding a Capri Sun and a cigarette. He was exhausted. He was also physically sore from being whipped around by the choppy water.
Still, he said that he was grateful, repeating again and again how thankful he was for the rescuers that collected him, his wife and his 11-year-old cat. That gratitude, at the moment, superseded any sadness over being stranded with only the clothes he had on. For now, Larkin and his wife were staying in the shelter and hoping to get into a motel.
“Right now, we’re here,” Larkin said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. All I care is we made it through.”