WAVERLY, Tenn. (AP) — President Joe Biden has approved a major disaster declaration sought by Tennessee after record rainfall caused devastating floods that killed more than 20 people, according to a statement sent Tuesday.
The action frees up federal aid to help with recovery efforts in Humphreys County, Biden’s statement said.
The flooding on Saturday 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.
Fewer than 10 people remained unaccounted for on Tuesday. Emergency workers were searching door to door, said Kristi Brown, coordinated health and safety supervisor with Humphreys County Schools.
It also left large swaths of the community suddenly displaced, sorting through difficult decisions about what comes next.
More than 90 people stayed in shelters Sunday, according to the state’s American Red Cross chapter as 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.
Many of the missing live in the neighborhoods where the water rose the fastest, said Humphreys County Sheriff Chris Davis. 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 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 when they were in there 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.”
Hall said she was trying to seek help by climbing out the window to go to a nearby store, and she 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 a boat.
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 750 customers were without power on Tuesday, down from 2,000 the night before, utility officials said.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee toured the area, calling it a “devastating picture of loss and heartache.”
Associated Press contributors include Julie Walker in New York.