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Over 20 dead, dozens still missing in Tennessee after devastating flooding

The hardest-hit place was Waverly, a small city west of Nashville that lost 20 residents, including 7-month-old twins.

(CN) — Devastating flash floods over the weekend have left at least 21 dead and more than 30 still missing in Middle Tennessee as of Monday morning.

Heavy rains fell Saturday, causing major flash floods that swept homes and vehicles in its path. The historic rainfall broke the state’s 24-hour rainfall record, the National Weather Service in Nashville said Saturday.

The previous record, set in 1982, was 13.6 inches in Milan. On Saturday, just over 17 inches of rain fell.

A majority of the loss of life was concentrated in the city of Waverly, a small city of about 4,000 people located about 75 miles west of Nashville. Twenty people died there, officials said. One other person died in a more rural area of Humphreys County.

The dead included 7-month-old twin babies who were swept away by floodwaters in Waverly as their family tried to get to safety, according to local news reports.

“We’ve experienced devastating loss of life over the last couple of days,” the city’s police and fire Chief Grant Gillespie said in a Sunday news conference. “We’ve lost more people in this event than we did in the train explosion in 1978. But we’ve seen the community come together … and [it] really helped us mitigate this incident.”

Initially, around 45 people had been reported missing in Saturday’s floods, according to Humphreys County Sheriff Chris Davis. That number had dropped to around 20 as of Sunday evening, Davis said during a news conference.

But as of Monday morning, that number had climbed up to 37, according to a list published to the city of Waverly’s Department of Public Safety’s Facebook page.

Officials began posting the list of names in an effort to determine who had been accounted for and who remained missing.

“We kinda felt like we’d gone back in time for a while because we were without our cellphones unless you were connected on WiFi or whatever, so it was a little bit like old school,” Gillespie said Sunday evening. “Folks were having trouble getting a hold of their loved ones, and then with the 911 system being down, just a lot of the things that we experienced because of the flooding made it harder.

He added, "So I think [the loss of communication] keeping people out of touch got [them] a little more worried … We shifted that priority today to ‘let’s get the word out on who is actually missing’ because we think we can clear a lot of them off the list.”

Officials recalled catastrophic floods that hit Middle Tennessee in 2010. But at least in Waverly, there were no fatalities that year, they said.

This time, the water came faster and there was more of it, Davis described.

“It put Waverly on an island for a little while,” he said. “It took me five hours to get here from McEwen — that’s 8 to 10 miles down the road … If it hadn't been for the people coming out and doing what we did, we probably would’ve been in a lot worse shape.”

Photos and videos show homes not only inundated but completely swept off their foundations, brick walls and roofs caved in, and vehicles piled on top or propped up against power lines.

In some cases, whatever was left after the flood was lost in fires.

Flood damage is photographed from a Tennessee National Guard helicopter over Waverly, Tenn., on Sunday. (Alan Poizner/The Tennessean via AP, Pool)

Waverly Mayor Wallace Frazier said Saturday’s floods shocked him.

“I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve been through a lot of events here,” the mayor said Sunday. “This was bad. The number of people it’s affected, the number of lives that’s lost, the property that’s been lost. Residential housing that’s in short supply to begin with, we’ve got some people that’s going to be hurting for a long time.”

Officials are hoping for federal assistance to help them with financial recovery from the damage, which they estimate to be in the millions.

“We’ve got damage to infrastructure, to residences, to schools, to, you know, a lot of facilities here in town. It’s going to be significant,” Gillespie said.

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, U.S. Senators Bill Hagerty and Marsha Blackburn and state emergency management agency’s director Patrick Sheehan surveyed the damage Sunday. They all called the damage devastating.

“I would expect, given the number of fatalities we have seen so far, that we’re going to see mostly recovery efforts at this point rather than rescue efforts,” Sheehan said late Sunday evening.

On Sunday, President Joe Biden said help was coming.

“I want to begin by expressing my deepest condolences for the sudden and tragic loss of life through this flash flood,” the president said ahead of an address about the evacuation efforts in Afghanistan.

“I know we've reached out to the community and we stand ready to offer them support,” he added. “I've asked the [FEMA] administrator to speak to Governor Lee of Tennessee, right away, and will offer any assistance they need for this terrible moment.”

On Monday morning, Vice President Kamala Harris also addressed the catastrophic flooding in a tweet.

“Doug and I are praying for the families impacted by the terrible flash flooding in Tennessee, and we offer our deepest condolences for those who have lost loved ones. Our administration stands ready to help during this difficult period.”

The Tennessee National Guard has been activated to assist in recovery efforts, sending nearly 50 soldiers, 12 tactical vehicles, eight Humvees and a Blackhawk helicopter to help with aquatic rescues.

Meanwhile, search efforts for the missing continue, and officials asked for patience and prayers.

 “We’re in this for the long haul. I mean, we’re in this for two weeks to 30 days,” Sheriff Davis said, adding, “if you’re sight-seeing, please don’t come in Waverly. It’s clogging us up. It’s jamming us up.”

Follow Rosana Hughes on Twitter

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