Flooding recedes in Tennessee as Southeast death toll reaches 29

The rain-swollen Cumberland River began to subside Tuesday, but not before the death toll from widespread storms and flooding rose to at least 29 in Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi as emergency crews slogged through receding waters in search of bodies.

Worst hit was Nashville, where the Grand Old Opry House was inundated by murky brown water. Power was out through much of the historic downtown area, where flooding reached the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and one of the city’s two water treatment plants was knocked out of service.

Emergency crews found the bodies of a couple who drowned in their home and a woman whose car was submerged on a flooded road, said Tisha Calabrese-Benton of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. Other bodies were found in a private yard and in a wooded area near a supermarket in Nashville.

Eighteen people died in Tennessee from flooded homes or cars — 10 of them in Nashville, Calabrese-Benton said. Another victim was killed in Tennessee by a tornado spawned by the storms that dumped 13 inches of rain on Nashville in two days over the weekend.

Authorities feared that receding waters from the Cumberland, which crested overnight at almost 52 feet — 12 feet above flood stage — would reveal more victims.

“Those in houses that have been flooded and some of those more remote areas, do we suspect we will find more people? Probably so,” Nashville Fire Chief Kim Lawson said. “We certainly hope that it’s not a large number.”

The Red Cross set up shelters for people flooded out of their homes or who were without electricity. Officials with the Nashville Electric Service said electricity might not be fully restored until as late as Friday because the flooding had complicated repair efforts.

The city’s only functioning water treatment plant came within a foot of being flooded, emergency officials said. Residents of Davidson County, which includes Nashville, and neighboring Williamson County were ordered to cut their water consumption in half to avoid overtaxing the system.

The storms took a toll on the tourist trade, a prime source of revenue for Nashville. Honky-tonks, restaurants and bars were flooded or closed. Floodwaters covered the playing surface of LP Field, home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. The Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center and the Opry Mills Mall also were flooded.

Musician Marty Stuart, one of the mainstays of the 85-year-old Grand Ole Opry country music and comedy variety show, had two words Tuesday to describe flood damage to the Opry House: “It’s biblical.”

An Opry member since 1992, Stuart said he was told by Opry officials that the water was chest-deep. “They’ve just been through it in a canoe — I think that tells you all you need to know,” Stuart said.

“It’s a profound sense of loss,” said Stuart, who took over the backstage dressing room assigned to Porter Wagoner after the longtime Opry star died in 2007. He said he didn’t have high hopes for recovering a rhinestone-bedecked tapestry he kept on display there, material that was to have been a new Nudie Cohn-style suit being made for Wagoner when he died.

At the Opry, the first floor of the Minnie Pearl building and four floors of the Acuff Theatre were covered in water.

Two inches of water reached the event level of the Bridgestone Arena, home of the Nashville Predators hockey team.

Gov. Phil Bredesen declared disaster areas in 52 of the state’s 95 counties after an aerial tour of Nashville and western Tennessee.

Six people also died in storm-related incidents in Mississippi and four in Kentucky.

The Cumberland River, whose many tributaries also spilled over their banks, crested at 51.86 feet late Monday night, the highest level since 1937, according to the Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service of the National Weather Service.

The river was projected to drop below 50 feet by Tuesday evening but was not expected to subside below the 40-foot flood state until midmorning Thursday.

“Nashville will fully recover,” Mayor Karl Dean told reporters.

Times staff writer Randy Lewis in Los Angeles contributed to this report.