NASHVILLE — Muddy waters poured over the banks of Nashville's swollen Cumberland River on Monday, spilling into Music City's historic downtown streets. Rescuers using boats and water scooters plucked stranded residents from their flooded homes as the death toll from the weekend storms climbed to 28 people in three states.
The flash floods caused by record-breaking amounts of rain caught many off-guard, forcing thousands to frantically flee their homes and hotels. The rapidly rising waters killed 17 people in Tennessee, including 10 in Nashville, and officials feared that the death toll could increase. Officials announced the latest deaths late Monday after receding floodwaters revealed six more bodies.
Though the historic Ryman Auditorium — the former home of the Grand Ole Opry — and the recording studios of Music Row were not in immediate danger, parts of other top Nashville tourist spots including the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry House were flooded.
"You never think something like this will happen in Nashville," said Stan Milstead of Tulsa, Okla., as he watched the dark brown river waters creep deeper into downtown.
Weekend storms dumped more than 13 inches of rain in two days in the Nashville area, leading to a quick rise of the Cumberland River and its tributaries. Authorities closed off streets in downtown Nashville as forecasters said the Cumberland crested there Monday night at nearly 12 feet above flood stage.
About 5 miles east of downtown, flooding forced about 1,500 guests from the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center to evacuate Sunday night to a high school, indefinitely shutting down one of the nation's largest hotel and convention centers.
"We had just finished eating and suddenly they said: 'Go! Go! Go!' " Gerdi Bauerle, 70, who was visiting from Munich, Germany, said Monday. "And we said 'Wait, we haven't even paid.' "
Up to 10 feet of water stood in parts of the hotel, as restaurant chairs and crates of wine glasses floated by. A life-sized Elvis statue missing his guitar was lying on its back in the nearby parking lot of the Wax Museum of the Stars.
Though the rain stopped falling on Monday, the river continued to inch upward in some places. Authorities and volunteers in fishing boats, an amphibious tour bus and a canoe scooped up about 500 trapped vacationers at the Wyndham Resort along the river near Opryland.
The weekend storms also killed six people in Mississippi and four in Kentucky, including one man whose truck ran off the road and into a flooded creek. One person was also killed by a tornado in western Tennessee.
In downtown Nashville, water filled the basement of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center where pianos were stored and sped into a mechanical room in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Five inches of water backed up through storm drains into the Bridgestone Arena, where the NHL's Nashville Predators play. On the east bank, water covered the grass inside LP Field, home of the NFL's Tennessee Titans.
Gov. Phil Bredesen declared 52 of Tennessee's 95 counties as disaster areas after finishing an aerial tour and said he talked with President Barack Obama. Bredesen saw flooding so extensive that tree tops looked like islands as he flew from Nashville to western Tennessee. "I've never seen flooding like this," he said.
Jim Moser, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Nashville, said a slow-moving weather system pumped up gulf moisture into highly unstable air over Tennessee. The result was strong storms dumping heavy rains that caught most of the city and surrounding area by surprise. "It was much higher than we expected," Moser said. The weather service listed the two-day total as 13.53 inches at the city's airport, outstripping the old record of 6.68 inches from the remnants of Hurricane Fredrick in 1979.
Mayor Karl Dean and city officials repeatedly implored residents Monday to conserve water after one of two water treatment plants was flooded. As the rising Cumberland threatened a levee that protected the remaining plant, neighborhoods and businesses northwest of downtown, city workers and about 200 volunteers frantically filled and stacked sandbags.