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Flooding in South forces evacuations

THE NATION

At least 22 die in Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi after heavy rainfall.

May 04, 2010|David Zucchino

RALEIGH, N.C. — Thousands of people were flooded out of their homes and businesses in Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi on Monday as rivers and streams overflowed their banks, blocking major highways and leaving at least 22 people dead.

Authorities feared the death toll could rise once floodwaters recede.

In Tennessee, state rescue teams and Coast Guard crews plucked people from flooded homes and hotels. Volunteers used canoes, motor boats and jet skis to reach stranded people, and helicopters rescued some residents from rooftops of homes cut off by roiling brown waters.

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen saw treetops poking through floodwaters as he viewed the damage during a helicopter tour Monday. "I've never seen flooding like this," he said.

At least two people died in Kentucky and one in Tennessee after their vehicles were swept from flooded highways, and long-haul truckers were trapped along Interstate 40 in Tennessee. More than 300 roads were reported flooded in Kentucky alone.

Nashville had its most severe flooding in 35 years, leaving part of the city's historic downtown deserted after residents and tourists were evacuated. At least 6 feet of water from the Cumberland River coursed through the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center, forcing 1,500 guests to flee to a high school.

More than 13 inches inundated Nashville over two days, more than doubling the previous record of 6.68 inches that fell during Hurricane Frederic in 1979.

Nancy Fleisher, who lives just south of downtown Nashville, said heavy rains uprooted trees on the hillside behind her house Sunday, sending limbs crashing through the ceiling of her den and kitchen.

"Yesterday was the most terrifying day of my life," Fleisher said in a telephone interview Monday as she watched large gaps form in the waterlogged hillside, raising fears that the entire hillside would flow down into her home.

Emergency management officials said the historic Ryman Auditorium, longtime former home of the Grand Ole Opry, was threatened but still dry late Monday afternoon. LP Field, home of the NFL's Tennessee Titans, was also at risk.

John Dillon, who maintains a farm along the swollen South Harpeth River about 20 miles southwest of Nashville, said several neighbors were trapped in their flooded homes and had to be evacuated. He said he managed to get his two horses and 30 head of beef cattle to high ground, and a calf was born during the deluge Saturday night.

Speaking by cellphone as he repaired fences downed by flooding, Dillon said he'd had to dump out his rain gauge -- capacity 5 1/2 inches -- three times. He estimated the total rainfall at 16 to 17 inches.

"We've seen a lot of flooding around here in the past, but nothing like this," said Dillon, who has lived on the farm since 1967. "It's a record-breaker."

Floodwaters were expected to begin receding overnight, the National Weather Service said.

Even with sunny skies Monday and no rain in the forecast until at least Thursday, it would take several days for floodwaters to fully recede, said Tracy Howieson, hydrologic services program manager for the weather service. "It takes a long time for all that water to move through the system," she said.

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david.zucchino@latimes.com

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