Image: Flooded Nashville area
Jeff Gentner  /  AP
Flood waters still cover much of Nashville, Tenn., on Tuesday.
NBC News and news services
updated 5/5/2010 7:45:54 AM ET 2010-05-05T11:45:54

The dark waters of the Cumberland River slowly started to ebb Tuesday as residents who frantically fled the deadly flash floods returned home to find mud-caked floors and soggy furniture. Rescuers prayed they would not find more bodies as the floodwaters receded.

The river and its tributaries had flooded parts of middle Tennessee after a record-breaking weekend storm dumped more than a foot of rain in two days, rapidly spilling water into homes, roads and some of Music City's best-known attractions.

At least 29 people were killed in Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky by either floodwaters or tornadoes. Water submerged parts the Grand Ole Opry House, considered by many to be the heart of country music, and the nearby Opryland Hotel could be closed for up to six months.

The flash flooding caught many here by surprise, and efforts to warn residents to not drive on flooded streets were hampered by power outages. As the water began to recede, bodies were recovered late Monday from homes, a yard and a wooded area outside a Nashville supermarket.

By Tuesday, the flash floods were blamed in the deaths of 18 people in Tennessee alone, including 10 in Nashville. 

The Nashville Scene reported that the city's coordinator for homeless issues said those who had been living in a tent city downtown appear to be accounted for after it was wiped out. Earlier, police told NBC News that they feared they might end up finding bodies there.

Hundreds rescued
Hundreds of people had been rescued by boat and canoe from their flooded homes over the past few days. Those rescue operations were winding down in Nashville on Tuesday, though emergency management officials were checking a report of a house floating in a northern neighborhood, trying to determine if anyone was in it.

It remained unclear how many — if any — people were missing in Tennessee. Authorities in southcentral Kentucky searched Tuesday for a kayaker who was last seen Monday afternoon in the swollen Green River.

"Those in houses that have been flooded and some of those more remote areas, do we suspect we will find more people? Probably so," Nashville Fire Chief Kim Lawson said. "We certainly hope that it's not a large number."

The Cumberland River also deluged some of Nashville's most important revenue sources: the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center, whose 1,500 guests were whisked to a shelter, the adjacent Opry Mills Mall, and the Grand Ole Opry House.

Slideshow: Deadly floods, winds Parts of the hotel remained flooded on Tuesday, and officials estimated it could stay closed for three to six months with more than $75 million in damage.

At the Grand Ole Opry, which is moving its shows to alternate concert halls, water reached the stage and the first floor of the Minnie Pearl building was flooded over the doors, said customer service representative Rita Helms. The Acuff Theater had four floors flooded, and the Gaslight Theater also was under water, she said.

At the Opry, performer Marty Stuart said he feared water had destroyed instruments, costumes, audio tapes, boots and "just everything that goes along with the Opry and Opry stars."

Singer Chris Young said a special Opry show Tuesday night at the War Memorial Auditorium was a welcome diversion for many residents. Hundreds of people turned out.

"A lot of people coming here have lost either their houses, their possessions or their cars in the storm," he said.

Floodwaters also edged into the Country Music Hall of Fame and LP Field where the Tennessee Titans play, though the Ryman Auditorium — the longtime former home of the Grand Ole Opry — appeared to be OK.

The water at the Country Music Hall of Fame was mostly confined to a mechanical room and did not get in the exhibit area where 112 of country's greatest stars are chronicled in down-home tributes.

Residents scour debris
Businesses along Nashville's riverfront lost electricity early Tuesday, and restaurants and bars clustered on a downtown street popular with tourists were closed. Laurie Parker, a spokeswoman for Nashville Electric Service, said a main circuit failed before dawn, knocking out power to downtown businesses in a 24-square-block area, including the 33-story AT&T Building, a Hilton hotel, the arena where the Nashville Predators NHL team plays and honky-tonks in the country music tourism district.

Parker said the power in that district would be out the rest of the week.

"It will be Friday at the earliest," she said, "depending on how fast the water level falls."

In one neighborhood west of downtown, residents scoured through debris, trying to determine how much they've lost.

Luke Oakman finally got a look at the room he and his wife designed for their 11-month-old daughter after the family fled their home on Sunday.

It was ruined. Baby toys and books sat on a mud-coated floor and a wooden bed leaned back against a wall. A rocking chair was propped up by the child's dresser that had been knocked over.

"I broke down when I saw that," the 32-year-old lab worker said.

Damage estimates range into the tens of millions of dollars. Gov. Phil Bredesen declared 52 of Tennessee's 95 counties disaster areas after finishing an aerial tour from Nashville to western Tennessee during which he saw flooding so extensive that treetops looked like islands. The flooding also prompted election officials to delay Nashville's local primary, which had been set for Tuesday.

Storms catch everyone off guard
The Cumberland topped out around 6 p.m. Monday at 51.9 feet, about 12 feet above flood stage — the highest it's reached since 1937. It began to recede just in time to spare the city's only remaining water treatment plant.

Reader photos of the floodsThe severity of the storms had caught everyone off guard. More than 13.5 inches of rainfall were recorded Saturday and Sunday, according to the National Weather Service, making for a new two-day record that doubled the previous mark.

The water swelled most of the area's lakes, minor rivers, creeks, streams and drainage systems far beyond capacity. It flowed with such force that bridges were washed out and thousands of homes were damaged. Much of that water then drained into the Cumberland, which snakes through Nashville.

The weekend storms also killed six people in Mississippi and four in Kentucky, including one man whose truck ran off the road and into a flooded creek. One person was killed by a tornado in western Tennessee.

About 30 National Guard troops assisted local authorities in southcentral Kentucky on Tuesday, where flooding washed out roads and bridges and shuttered post offices, schools and government buildings.

"It's serious out there still," said Mark Marraccini, spokesman for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife. "These waters are very dangerous."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: As floodwaters recede, more feared dead

  1. Closed captioning of: As floodwaters recede, more feared dead

    >> the hour. here's meredith .

    >>> the floodfloodwaters may be receding but this morning the death toll is rising from the record breaking storms that dumped more than a foot of rain on parts of the south in just two days. nashville , the capital of country music , has been particularly hard hit. that's where nbc 's ron mott is this morning. ron , good morning to you.

    >> reporter: hey, mir daeredith, most of the lights have returned here to downtown nashville but there is still block after block of darkness along the cumberland river which is receding, though leaving a huge mess in her wake. overhead, the flood 's destructive and deadly reach was obvious tuesday. airplanes sat grounded under water . so did the grand ole opry and opry land hotel . the expansive opry land which could be shuttered for months is key to convention and tourism revenue here, host to 3,000 hotel rooms just at this location now closed for repair. on the ground in neighborhoods, the toll is harder to quantify yet easy to see as residents anxious to check their damaged homes are left to wait for the coast to clear. some who returned could only watch, still seemingly stunned by what happened over the weekend so quickly.

    >> nobody knew that the water was going to come down this way. we didn't hear no sirens.

    >> reporter: jorge at least got inside his house wading through ankle- deep water but didn't find much to salvage.

    >> everything we have in there is -- it's bad. we have to dump everything.

    >> reporter: like many families, the family doesn't have flood insurance . nor does this couple. no time really. they just moved in.

    >> i lived in that house over there. that's the worst thing i ever seen, man. we just moved there friday.

    >> reporter: downtown, scores of businesses remain closed while flooded streets slowly resurface as the cumberland river steadily drops. now that the clean-up is under way, city leaders are already trumpeting a comeback.

    >> we are looking at a long recovery period. at the same time, i want to reassure everyone that nashville will fully recover and continue to be the great city that it is, a great place to live and a great place to visit.

    >> reporter: back in this section of town, a great reunion by kayaks. found, safe and sound , if not a bit chatty. one of the bright spots that we saw here yesterday. now last night president obama declared parts of tennessee a major disaster , opening the flow of federal funds to aid in the recovery which is expected to take place in time, meredith .

    >>> let us head over to

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