Devastating floods in the southern US state of Tennessee have left at least 22 people dead, including twin toddlers who were swept from their father’s arms, according to local officials.
Dozens of people were also reported missing on Sunday after record-breaking rain the previous day sent floodwaters surging through rural areas in Middle Tennessee. The deluge swept away homes and took out roads, cellphone towers and telephone lines.
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Chris Davis, the sheriff of Humphreys County, confirmed 22 deaths in his county and said many of the missing lived in the neighbourhoods where the water rose the fastest. Davis himself lost a friend to the floods.
“They just went and got one of my best friends and recovered him. He drowned in this,” the sheriff told CNN. “It’s tough, but we’re going to move forward.”
The names of the missing were on a board in the county’s emergency centre and listed on a city department’s Facebook page.
Davis said half a dozen children were among the missing.
Local officials in the town of Waverly likened the unusually intense storm on Saturday to a hurricane or a tornado. They said water rose so quickly that some people were unable to escape.
As search and rescue operations continued, authorities imposed a nighttime curfew on Sunday and emergency workers went from home to home to search for victims or those needing assistance.
“I would expect, given the number of fatalities, that we’re going to see mostly recovery efforts at this point rather than rescue efforts,” Tennessee Emergency Management Director Patrick Sheehan said.
‘Loss and heartache’
Up to 430mm (17 inches) of rain fell in Humphreys County in less than 24 hours on Saturday, breaking the Tennessee record for one-day rainfall by more than 75mm (3 inches), the National Weather Service said.
The hardest-hit areas saw double the rain that Middle Tennessee has 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.
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee toured the area, calling it a “devastating picture of loss and heartache”.
He stopped on Main Street in Waverly, where some homes were washed off their foundations and people were sifting through their water-logged possessions. All around the county were debris from wrecked cars, demolished businesses and homes and a chaotic, tangled mix of the things inside.
Shirley Foster cried as the governor walked up. She said she just learned a friend from her church was dead.
“I thought I was over the shock of all this. I’m just tore up over my friend. My house is nothing, but my friend is gone,” Foster told the governor.
Business owner Kansas Klein told the Associated Press news agency that he saw two girls holding on to a puppy and clinging to a wooden board sweep past a bridge in Waverly, the current too fast for anyone to grab them. He said he had not found out what happened to them.
In Washington, DC, President Joe Biden began an afternoon press conference by expressing his “deepest condolences for the sudden and tragic loss of life” in Tennessee.
He said he has directed federal disaster officials to talk with the governor and offer any assistance needed.
Krissy Hurley, a weather service meteorologist in the city of Nashville, said it was impossible to know the exact role of climate change in Saturday’s flood. But she noted in the past year that her office has dealt with floods that used to be expected maybe once every 100 years; one in September south of Nashville and the other 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 that man-made climate change doubles the chances of the types of heavy downpours that dumped 660mm (26 inches) of rain around Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in August 2016. Those floods killed at least 13 people and damaged 150,000 homes.