Crews Scour Debris for Missing People After Tennessee Floods

By The Associated Press
The Associated Press
The Associated Press
August 25, 2021 Updated: August 25, 2021

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 more than 20 people.

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.

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.”

Search creek for missing persons
Dustin Shadownes, of Ashland City Fire Department, searches a creek for missing persons along with a cadaver dog in Waverly, Tenn., on Aug. 23, 2021. (John Amis/AP Photo)

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.

Waverly police Chief Grant Gillespie said Monday that the number of people considered missing has fluctuated, as people were unable to contact loved ones later confirmed to be safe.

“I’m reasonably sure that we are less than 10 right now that we are truly not sure about the whereabouts of, or that we don’t think we’ll resolve fairly easily,” Gillespie said.

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.”

By Travis Loller and Jonathan Mattise

The Associated Press
The Associated Press