- Parts of Humphreys County were inundated with 17 inches of rain Saturday.
- Swamped roads and downed wires complicated search efforts.
- Twin babies were among the dead.
WAVERLY, Tenn. – Search-and-rescue teams, volunteers and dismayed family members frantically picked through the saturated ruins of dozens of homes Monday, holding out hope that loved ones missing after Saturday's flooding would be found alive.
At least 21 people were killed when walls of water powered by up to 17 inches of rain roared through rural Humphreys County, home to about 20,000 people 70 miles west of Nashville. Twenty deaths were within the city of Waverly, the county seat, authorities said.
Dozens of people were missing Monday, county Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Grey Collier said. Officials urged sightseers to stay away from Waverly.
Roads were swamped, power lines downed and cellphone towers damaged, complicating efforts to find the missing. Emergency crews began damage assessment on the ground Monday, but debris removal will not begin anytime soon, Collier said.
Sheriff Chris Davis said it would take weeks, if not months, to recover and rebuild infrastructure. Federal disaster aid will be crucial to repairing or rebuilding structures such as schools, he said.
"What we need right now is patience," Davis said.
Some residents offered to help in any way they could on the sheriff's office Facebook page. Others listed the names of people and families who were missing, some even adding places where first responders might look to find them.
"We are a strong community full of great people. We will persevere through this," the sheriff's office said in a post. "There is more work to be done to help our neighbors and bring missing loved ones home."
The unrelenting rains Saturday overwhelmed a swath of Middle Tennessee, including Dickson, Hickman, Humphreys and Houston counties. Humphreys County was hit particularly hard.
Gov. Bill Lee toured Waverly Elementary School on Sunday, 4 feet of water having receded from the building. The school's playground was in splinters, its mangled metal gates twisted into odd angles.
Lee described the scene as a "devastating picture of loss and heartache" but praised the outpouring of help and the swift response of emergency crews.
“It was dramatic to hear the stories about how fast this happened,” Lee said. “They would see water in their yard, and within minutes, it was coming in their home."
Business owner Kansas Klein said his pizzeria was still standing but had been rendered a total loss by the floodwaters that reached 7 feet inside the building.
“It was devastating. Buildings were knocked down, half of them were destroyed,” Klein said. “People were pulling out bodies of people who had drowned.”
The dead included twin babies wrenched from their father’s arms, according to surviving family members, and a foreman at country music star Loretta Lynn’s ranch. In Waverly, a town of 4,300 people, the pummeling rain swept homes from their foundations and carried vehicles off streets.
When the rain turned into a river, Brittney LeAnn McCord held on to her son for as long as she could. She wrapped Kellon Cole Burrow, 2, in her arms and tried to hold on to a clothesline outside her apartment – and keep hold of her other four children as the floodwaters rose. Kellon was pulled away by the current.
"The last time I saw him was when we put him to bed," stepfather Kalaub Brian McCord said through tears.
Karen Phair, 61, said her family's home was ripped apart by the waters. Her grandmother's former home was carried away by the raging floods.
"It's just unbelievable," she whispered. "It's a war zone."
Bacon reported from Arlington, Virginia. Contributing: Rachel Wegner, Adam Friedman, Brinley Hineman, Cassandra Stephenson, and Mariah Timms, Nashville Tennessean; The Associated Press