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At Least A Dozen People Missing, 22 Dead After Flooding In Tennessee

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The death toll in Tennessee is now 22, following record-breaking rainfall on Saturday. In Waverly, about an hour west of Nashville, flash flooding ripped through town, washing out roads, demolishing homes and knocking out power and phone lines. At least a dozen people are missing. Now authorities and residents are taking to the streets to help clean up and search for the missing. Caroline Eggers of member station WPLN reports from Waverly.

CAROLINE EGGERS, BYLINE: On nearly every other block in the small town of Waverly, crews of volunteers and neighbors sorted through warped masses of materials today. The damage was almost like a tornado, where some homes were completely destroyed and others were spared. The hardest hit areas were concentrated near creeks.

BRYAN SEAVER: We're working on helping the living right now. It's recovery and a lot of debris removal.

EGGERS: That's Bryan Seaver of the Tennessee Ranger Squadron. The debris that he's talking about includes homes that were displaced, sometimes hundreds of yards from their foundations.

SEAVER: It moved from that corner all the way down to here. None of these houses that you see are in the spots that they were built in.

EGGERS: One house over, they hammered through the glass of a vehicle suspended across someone's porch to retrieve a nurse's hospital ID so she could get to work.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm cresting (ph) it up.

EGGERS: As they dig further into the rubble, they never know what they're going to find. Next door, they came across a 1946 Plymouth mixed in the wreckage, which will later present a challenge when they try to figure out what stuff belongs to who and where to put it. His team is also seeing evidence of broader environmental impacts.

SEAVER: Everything from the wildlife to the river, the creek - everything around here has been damaged. I mean, you can even look in the dirt around here, and there's dead fish laying in the dirt.

EGGERS: Down the street, Gregory Lawser, who escaped significant damage in his own home, helped his close friend haul furniture into the yard and strip out the wet flooring. He said the tragedy of the situation, which he's calling Waverly's Hurricane Katrina, was sinking in, and he was concerned about the possibility of future disasters.

GREGORY LAWSER: I don't know. It's, you know, supposed to be a hundred-year flood, and it's happened three times. A flood, like, similar to this has happened three times in the past 11 years.

EGGERS: What happened in this region, with a record of 17 inches of rain in a day, tracks with predictions of how climate change is affecting the area. The Environmental Protection Agency has said there will be increased flooding, and, by some estimates, hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans will face a greater risk of flooding as the climate heats up.

Towards the center of Waverly, debris piled roughly 12 feet high against a bridge, where a local urban rescue team faced one of the heaviest recovery tasks - looking for the missing bodies. Mark Woodfind of the Nashville police said they were looking for a 15-year-old girl last seen on a boat two days earlier.

MARK WOODFIN: You know, we're hoping to bring any type of closure to the family. It's - you know, it's a very tragic event. I mean, pictures don't do it justice down here. You know, it's just devastation - bad.

EGGERS: The cleanup may take weeks, but the recovery and the rebuilding are likely to take several years.

For NPR News, I'm Caroline Eggers in Waverly, Tenn.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This report incorrectly identified a Nashville police official as Mark Woodfind. His name is Mark Woodfin.]

(SOUNDBITE OF ARIEL ABRAMOVICH'S "RICERCAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.