Rescue crews have been searching desperately amid shattered homes and tangled debris for dozens of people still missing after record-breaking rain sent floodwaters surging through Middle Tennessee.
At least 10 people were killed, including twin toddlers who were swept from their father’s arms, according to surviving family members.
Authorities fear the death toll could rise.
The flooding in rural areas took out roads, mobile phone towers and telephone lines, leaving families uncertain about whether their loved ones survived the unprecedented deluge. Emergency workers were searching door to door, said Kristi Brown, a coordinator for health and safety supervisor with Humphreys County Schools.
Humphreys County Sheriff Chris Davis said on Sunday many of the missing people live in the neighbourhoods where the water rose the fastest.
Up to 430mm (17 inches) of rain fell in the county in less than 24 hours on Saturday, appearing to shatter the Tennessee record for one-day rainfall by more than 76mm (3 inches), the National Weather Service said.
The hardest-hit areas saw double the rain that area of Middle Tennessee 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.
The downpours rapidly turned the creeks that run behind backyards and through downtown Waverly into raging rapids. Business owner Kansas Klein stood on a bridge on Saturday in the town of 4,500 people and saw two girls who were holding on to a puppy and clinging to a wooden board sweep past, the current too fast for anyone to grab them.
He is not sure what happened to them. Klein heard that a girl and a puppy had been rescued downstream, and that another girl was also saved, but he was not sure it was them.
By Sunday, the floodwaters were gone, leaving behind debris from wrecked cars, demolished businesses and homes and a chaotic, tangled mix of the things inside.
“It was amazing how quick it came and how quick it left,” Klein said.
The Humphrey County Sheriff Office Facebook page filled with people looking for missing friends and family. GoFundMe pages were made asking for help for funeral expenses for the dead, including seven-month-old twins yanked from their father’s arms as they tried to escape.
Not far from the bridge, Klein told The Associated Press news agency by phone that dozens of buildings in a low-income housing area known as Brookside appeared to have borne the brunt of the flash flood.
“It was devastating: buildings were knocked down, half of them were destroyed,” Klein said. “People were pulling out bodies of people who had drowned and didn’t make it out.”
Davis told news outlets on Saturday about the 10 confirmed deaths and more than 30 people missing in his county, located about 96km (60 miles) west of Nashville.
The dead ranged from babies to elderly people and included one of his best friends, the sheriff of the county of 18,000 people told WSVM-TV on Sunday.
“Small town, small community. We know each other. We love each other,” Davis said.
Just to the east of Waverly, the town of McEwen was pummelled on Saturday with 432mm (17 inches) of rain, smashing the state’s 24-hour record of 345mm (13.6 inches) from 1982, according to the National Weather Service in Nashville, though Saturday’s numbers would have to be confirmed.
A flash flood watch was issued for the area before the rain started, with forecasters saying 100-150mm (4-6 inches) of rain was possible. The worst storm recorded in this area of Middle Tennessee dropped only 230mm (9 inches) of rain, said Krissy Hurley, a weather service 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.”
Recent scientific research has determined that extreme rain events will become more frequent because of man-made climate change. Hurley said it is impossible to know its exact role in Saturday’s flood, but noted in the past year her office dealt with floods that used to be expected maybe once every 100 years in 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’s flooding. “Thunderstorms developed and moved across the same area over and over and over.”
The problem is not 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 660mm (26 inches) of rain around Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Those floods killed at least 13 people and damaged 150,000 homes.