CHRIS TALBOTT and SHEILA BURKE
Associated Press Writers
NASHVILLE — Nashville braced for more deaths Monday as the flooded Cumberland River continued to swell, sending muddy water rushing through neighborhoods and into parts of the historic heart of Music City after a destructive line of weekend storms killed 22 people in Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky.
The flash floods caught Nashville off-guard, and thousands of residents and tourists were forced to flee homes and hotels as the river that winds through the city rapidly spilled over its banks. Eleven of the 12 people killed in Tennessee drowned, including six in Nashville.
Using motor boats, jet skis and canoes, authorities and volunteers rescued scores of residents trapped in flooded homes, some which looked like islands surround by dark brown river water. Helicopters plucked stranded residents off of rooftops.
The downtown — home of a historic warehouse district that dates back to the 1800s and is now occupied by bars and restaurants — was nearly deserted after authorities evacuated the area. Floodwater spilled into some streets near the riverfront, and restaurants and bars in the warehouse district were closed. A few blocks away, the historic Ryman Auditorium, longtime former home of the Grand Ole Opry, was in no immediate danger.
"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 Monday 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 in emergency shelters, including about 1,500 guests at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center who spent the night at a high school to escape the flooding.
The resort's hotel, located northeast of downtown along the river, had "significant water" inside and would remain closed indefinitely, said hotel spokeswoman Kim Keelor. A life-sized Elvis statue, missing his guitar, was laying on its back in the parking lot of the Wax Museum of the Stars near Opryland Hotel.
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.'"
"The water began rising much more rapidly than anyone predicted," Keelor said.
Water flooded parking lots around the nearby Grand Ole Opry House and the Opry Mills shopping mall, but it wasn't immediately clear if water had made it inside the buildings.
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 on the TV that her neighborhood was being evacuated Sunday night. She and her son tried to escape in her truck, but she couldn't even make it to her mailbox because the water was so high that it started flooding the truck's cab.
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 up 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 morning. "I got me, the dog, the car out and that's all I got," she said on Monday.
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."
Across from downtown on the east side of the river, LP Field, where the Tennessee Titans play also was threatened. Water covered one parking lot near the river but had not reached the stadium on Monday afternoon. At the Wild Horse Saloon, a popular country music hangout on the downtown riverfront, there was water in the loading dock area and the bottom floor.
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 storms, which also spawned deadly tornadoes, killed at least 12 people in Tennessee — including one person killed by a tornado in the western part of the state — six in Mississippi and four in Kentucky.
Three of the people killed in Mississippi died when high winds believed to be tornados hit their homes; the other three were killed in what authorities said were weather-related traffic accidents. Four weather-related deaths were also reported in Kentucky, including one man whose truck ran off the road and into a flooded creek.
The weekend deaths came on the heels of a tornado in Arkansas that killed a woman and injured about two dozen people Friday. A week ago, 10 people were killed by a tornado from a separate storm in western Mississippi.
Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen got a bird's eye view of the flooding damage during a helicopter tour of the area on Monday. As he crossed the Tennessee River and neared the hard-hit area of Madison County, flood waters were so deep that the tops of trees made the land looked like islands.
"I've never seen flooding like this," Bredesen said.
The Cumberland River already reached record levels since an early 1960s flood control project was put in place. With so much water inundating its tributaries, it was difficult to gauge whether the river would stop at 50 feet deep, or 11 feet above flood stage.
Much of the damage from flooding was done in outlying areas of Nashville and across the middle and western parts of Tennessee. Rescues turned dramatic over the weekend with homeowners plucked off roofs and pregnant women airlifted off a waterlogged interstate.
The rain ended Monday 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 — about 1,200 of them in Nashville.
Most schools in middle Tennessee were closed Monday and many universities in the Nashville area postponed final exams.
The state's roads also were in bad shape. The three major interstates in the Nashville area were closed over the weekend and Interstate 40, which runs east to west through the state, reopened Monday. In Kentucky, than 300 roads were blocked by flood waters, officials said.
In Nashville, even the state's own emergency operations center wasn't immune. It took up to a foot of water below a false floor, forcing officials to relocate to an auxiliary command center.
"I've never seen it this high," said emergency official Donnie Smith, who's lived in Nashville 45 years. "I'm sure that it's rained this hard at one time, but never for this much of an extended period."
Associated Press Writers Erik Schelzig in Memphis, Tenn., Lucas L. Johnson II in Jackson, Tenn., Dylan T. Lovan in Louisville, Ky., Roger Alford in Frankfort, Ky., and Kristin M. Hall, Travis Loller and Joe Edwards in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.