Anna Mays woke up in a panic attack Monday, thinking she was back in the rising floodwater.
Two days ago, she had been clinging for her life to the front door of her duplex in rural Tennessee as the water inched up to her neck. Her brother was hanging onto a tree.
Then Mays realized where she was: The gym at the Waverly Church of Christ, now her temporary home alongside other victims of record-breaking rain Saturday that sent floodwaters surging through the region, killing at least 22 people.
Her story has become a familiar one in Humphreys County, and particularly the small town of Waverly. Large swaths of the community are suddenly displaced, sorting through difficult decisions about what comes next even as they relive the horror of what just happened.
“This morning I was having a panic attack and thought I was in water, and I was trying to get that way and trying to get this way. I was just scared half to death,” said Mays, who doesn’t know how to swim. “I was just, something woke me up and I thought I was in the water, and — I never have seen — I’ve seen it on TV, but I’ve never have seen it like it in life, where cars was going by.”
Mays started gathering up a few belongings after a police officer came to the door of her duplex Saturday morning, telling her to evacuate. She and her brother could see the water rising quickly. Her brother was trying to keep it out of the house by shoving towels under the door, but they were soon overwhelmed. Minutes later, the flooded creek pushed open the door and water poured into the house.
Mays’ brother went outside to try to find a way onto the roof but ended up clinging to a tree. Mays held on to the front door until they were rescued by boat, escaping with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. Mays said the neighbour on the other side of the duplex lost her daughter, who was about seven or eight years old.
While survivors grappled with their recollections — more than 90 people stayed in shelters Sunday, according to the state’s American Red Cross chapter — rescue workers continued their arduous searches for anyone else swept away.
Authorities rummaged through heaps of debris as search and rescue teams used dogs to try to sniff out any missing people, Waverly police Chief Grant Gillespie said.
“There’s still a lot of debris in and along the creek that needs to be examined. That’s a painstaking process,” Gillespie said during a news conference. “We have to tear that apart, a lot of times, with equipment.”
The police chief said the number of people considered missing has fluctuated, as people have not been able to reach loved ones who are 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.
Saturday’s 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 record for one-day rainfall. Emergency workers were searching door to door, said Kristi Brown, coordinated health and safety supervisor with Humphreys County Schools.
Many of the missing live in the neighbourhoods where the water rose the fastest, said Humphreys County Sheriff Chris Davis, who confirmed the 22 fatalities in his county. The names of the missing were on a board in the county’s emergency center and listed on a city of Waverly Facebook page, which is being updated as people call in and report themselves safe.
The Humphreys County Sheriff Office Facebook page filled with people looking for missing friends and family. GoFundMe pages asked for help for funeral expenses for the dead, including seven-month-old twins swept from their father’s arms as they tried to escape.
The death of the twins was confirmed by surviving family members. A foreman at country music star Loretta Lynn’s ranch also died. The sheriff of the county of about 18,000 people some 60 miles (96 kilometers) west of Nashville said he lost one of his best friends.
Up to 17 inches (43 centimeters) of rain fell in Humphreys County in less than 24 hours Saturday, passing the Tennessee record for one-day rainfall by more than three inches (eight centimeters), the National Weather Service said, though Saturday’s numbers will have to be confirmed.
School was canceled for the week, according to the sheriff’s office. Waverly Elementary and Waverly Junior High suffered extensive damage, according to Brown. About 2,000 homes in the county were without power Monday evening, utility officials said.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee toured the area, calling it a “devastating picture of loss and heartache.” President Joe Biden offered condolences to the people of Tennessee and directed federal disaster officials to talk with the governor and offer assistance.
Survivors played back the harrowing moments when the water closed in.
Billy Ray Rushing was staying with his daughter, Annie Rushing, when they were told to evacuate.
“Right then and there, we got in the car and left,” he said.
The water was already over their muffler. Their neighbour, Mary, on the other side of the duplex went back inside her home but soon was calling, asking them to come back for her, Rushing said. It was too late.
“There wasn’t any way we could get back there. I hate it, but I couldn’t take the chance of her and me drowning,” he said, indicating his daughter.
That same neighbour warned Jodie Stawski, across the street, to get out before the water reached their apartment.
“But as we went, as we was driving out, we could see these people on their porches,” said Stawski on Monday. “And I think in my mind, they thought they were safe. That the water was not going to get that high. But from what I heard, it gushed at them. And we lost Miss Mary. She drowned in the process. She was our hero. She saved us.”