WAVERLY, Tenn.—The body of the final person missing from a devastating weekend flood in Middle Tennessee was recovered on Wednesday, prompting the search for victims to be suspended as the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency toured the area.
Saturday’s flooding took out houses, roads, cellphone towers, and telephone lines, with rainfall that more than tripled forecasts and shattered the state record for one-day rainfall. More than 270 homes were destroyed and 160 took major damage, according to the Humphreys County Emergency Management Agency.
Waverly Police Chief Grant Gillespie’s voice broke as he announced the discovery of the final victim during an afternoon news conference. Officials did not immediately release the victim’s identity.
“We had resumed the searching this morning in the areas that we thought were most likely to—where our victim was most likely to be found,” Gillespie said. “We’ve used dogs, heavy equipment. It’s just been very painstaking because it’s a tedious process to get in there and look for victims. … Today was about our victim, and we found her.”
The death count stands at 20, according to county authorities, although the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency had put it at 17 at mid-day on Wednesday. That discrepancy is because TEMA’s detailed process in confirming deaths can take longer to complete, agency Director Patrick Sheehan said.
FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell and Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee toured the area together on Wednesday. Afterward, Criswell noted how scientists have linked climate change to increasingly intense weather events like the Tennessee floods.
“Floods like this are not something that we see typically around the country,” Criswell said at a Nashville news conference after the tour. “And as we continue to see the changes from climate change, I fear that this may be something that we start to see see more often.”
Lee, a Republican, sidestepped the climate change discussion when asked about his position on its role.
“Why that occurs, I don’t know the answer to that,” Lee said of the rainfall in Tennessee. “I would guess there are those that do, but I’m not qualified to answer that. I don’t know what caused it. We just know that that significant, historic rainfall is what happened in Humphreys County.”
The first stop on their tour was Waverly First Baptist Church, which is being used as a shelter, with a table of food lining one wall and small beds lining another.
Lee became choked up when talking to those temporarily living in the shelter, as well as those who have been assisting.
“Tragedy comes in a moment. But what we’ve seen here is the intersection of tragedy and hope,” said Lee.
Lee also said President Joe Biden called him Tuesday and offered his support, noting that the Biden administration quickly approved the state’s request for an emergency declaration, which frees up federal aid to help with recovery efforts in Humphreys County.
Criswell said she spoke with Biden right after Saturday’s flooding.
“The road to recovery is going to be long, but we are here to support the governor and his team and support you with what your needs are,” Criswell said, temporarily taking her mask down so everyone could hear. “And my heart goes out to all of you.”
The small city of Waverly, about 60 miles (96 kilometers) west of Nashville, was the community hit hardest by the flood. A public housing project there along the banks of Trace Creek was in ruins.
The Waverly Housing Authority was working on Wednesday to try to find housing for the residents in nearby towns, executive director Sherry Lynch said.
Meanwhile, residents picked through their mud-caked possessions and searched bushes for belongings that were washed away. Strewn across the ground were the remnants of their lives—Christmas wreaths, T-shirts, VHS taps, baseball cards. Every vertical object left standing was plastered with debris, wrapped tightly around poles and trees in the direction of the current.
In the chaotic aftermath of the flood, there was confusion about even the number of people killed. The number had previously climbed as high as 22, but Gillespie later said some people were counted twice and others were counted who died from non-flood-related causes.
With the search for victims over, efforts turned to clean-up and recovery on Wednesday. All of the deaths would be investigated by detectives, Gillespie said, even though there is no foul play suspected.
“They’re just tying up loose ends, trying to find out the circumstances about how somebody went in the water, how they—where we found them—and tying all those records together,” he said. “We’re going to treat each one with the individual respect it deserves to get the answers about what happened in each one of those cases.”
Humphreys County Sheriff Chris Davis spoke to reporters on Tuesday about the toll the disaster has taken on residents.
“You’ve seen us get a little emotional. You have to remember, these are people we know, people’s families, people we grew up with—just the people of our small town. It’s just very close to us.”
By Jonathan Mattise and Travis Loller