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Crews scour debris for more victims after Tennessee floods

Travis Loller and Jonathan Mattise
Associated Press

Waverly, Tenn. — Crews with chainsaws and heavy equipment cleared their way through trees densely matted with vegetation, garbage and debris from homes Tuesday as searchers scoured a normally shallow creek for more flooding victims in rural Tennessee.

Even cars and sheds were woven into the tangle of debris lining Trace Creek in Humphreys County, where the town of Waverly saw the most death and destruction from Saturday’s flooding that killed 18 people.

Ernest Hollis looks for items at his granddaughter's house that was devastated by floodwaters, Monday in Waverly, Tenn.

Humphreys County Chief Deputy Rob Edwards said excavators were moving the largest pieces of debris as search teams started from Waverly and moved slowly downstream. Fewer than 10 people remained unaccounted for Tuesday.

Others were searching several miles downstream with drones, Edwards said. It’s difficult to know how far the bodies might have been carried, but one car was found about a half-mile from where it had been parked.

Sheriff’s deputies and police were aided by crews from agencies all over the state, he said. The teams have cadaver dogs at the ready if they suspect a body might be nearby. With the heat in the mid-80s and rising, it was not difficult to detect the odor of decay, Edwards said, although crews also were finding animals.

Authorities revised the confirmed death toll to 18 people Tuesday, a drop from as high as 22. Waverly police Chief Grant Gillespie said at a news conference that some people who were in the emergency room and died of natural causes were mistakenly added to the count. Gillespie said John and Jane Doe victims twice were not crossed off the list once they were identified.

Gillespie said authorities had detectives follow up on each case and confirm the numbers, which now line up with the state tally.

“Just an honest mistake, and I hope everybody understands that,” Gillespie said. “It’s still a tremendous loss of life. I hope that number doesn’t grow.”

Three people are still on the list of those missing who witnesses said they saw in the water, he said.

The flooding took out roads, cellphone towers and telephone lines, leaving people uncertain about whether family and friends survived the unprecedented deluge, with rainfall that more than tripled forecasts and shattered the state's one-day record.

It also left large swaths of the community suddenly displaced, leaving many to sort through difficult decisions about what comes next.

GoFundMe pages sought help for funeral expenses for the dead, including 7-month-old twins swept from their father’s arms as they tried to escape.

Matthew Rigney and Danielle Hall described to WTVF-TV how the water began to rage through their apartment where they sheltered with their four children.

“I had the twins in my arms, I had (19-month-old) Brayla on my hip and I had (5-year-old) Maleah wrapped around my neck,” Rigney told the news station, his voice trembling behind tears. “The water, when it hit us it just pulled us under, all of us and we were trapped underneath a bed.”

Hall said she was trying to climb out the window to go to a nearby store for help and ended up having to grab onto a tree for her life.

The other two children survived.

“I was trying to find all of them, and Leah came up like a big girl. You swam like a big girl, and I’m so proud of you,” Rigney said to Maleah, who sat with her family on the couch during the interview.

A neighbor helped Rigney and the two children up to the roof. Hall was ultimately rescued from the tree by boat.

Many of the missing live in the neighborhoods where the water rose the fastest, Humphreys County Sheriff Chris Davis said.

School was canceled for the week, according to the sheriff’s office. Waverly Elementary and Waverly Junior High had extensive damage, according to Kristi Brown, coordinated health and safety supervisor with Humphreys County Schools.

About 750 customers were without power Tuesday, down from 2,000 the night before, utility officials said.

Meanwhile, the state received approval from President Joe Biden for a major disaster declaration, which frees up federal aid to help with recovery efforts in Humphreys County, the White House said in a statement Tuesday.

After touring the area on Sunday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee called it a “devastating picture of loss and heartache.”

Associated Press contributors include Julie Walker in New York.