Flash flooding over the weekend in Tennessee killed four people and prompted dozens of rescues after record-breaking rain fell on the state capital of Nashville.
The city declared a local state of emergency Sunday following overnight floods, as Nashville Mayor John Cooper called for state and federal funds to help the area. More than seven inches (17.8 centimeters) of rain fell on the Nashville area over the weekend, its second-highest two-day rainfall on record.
The heavy downpours made for some very dramatic and dangerous situations as rivers, creeks, and streams across the region overflowed and breached their banks, several reaching their highest levels in a decade. Early Sunday morning, the National Weather Service in Nashville warned of a “life-threatening situation” from the floods and said that there had been reports of people clinging to trees to avoid being swept away by water. The rains, the NWS said Monday, made March 2021 Nashville’s second-wettest March on record.
Two of the casualties identified had been stuck in their cars or were attempting to escape their vehicles in the floodwaters, authorities said, while two other bodies were found near a homeless camp. The local fire department said Sunday morning that they had pulled more than 130 people from houses and cars, while a local Fox station reported that a Walmart in South Nashville had turned into “a lake” as multiple cars were submerged in the parking lot. The rains spurred other disasters as well. Authorities had to rescue at least 15 people from an apartment complex that was hit with a mudslide caused by flash flooding.
Tennessee wasn’t the only state experiencing serious weather this weekend. The National Weather Service said it received more than 250 severe weather reports from across the South, stretching to Texas, where local news reports say that a “major tornado” caused at least one casualty. The South has had a rough start to spring, with two extremely serious tornado outbreaks earlier this month. It’s been just over a year since Nashville was hit by a deadly tornado.
Nashville was hit hard with deadly floods in 2010, when more than 13 inches (33 centimeters) of rain fell over two days—nearly double this weekend’s total—and caused a 1,000-year flood event that killed 26 people, damaged thousands of properties, and caused $2 billion in private property damage. In a tweet thread posted Sunday, Nashville’s water agency said that the 2010 floods had spurred investments in the city’s drinking water system that kept water supply safe during this past weekend’s rains.
These types of heavy downpours are becoming more common as the planet heats up because a warmer atmosphere holds more water. The South has seen a 27% increase in the heaviest rainfall events since the late 1950s, and that trend is likely to continue as the atmosphere continues to heat up. That points to the need to prepare for more downpours, and at least in Nashville’s case, the lessons learned by the city in 2010 appear to have paid off in protecting at least some life and property. But the city—and others around the U.S.—still have work to do.
“Are we ready for 10 inches should that happen? Are we ready for this event to happen again?” Cooper said during a Sunday news conference. “I’m going to challenge my colleagues in metro government to have a response that’s appropriate to the kind of climate conditions that we seem to be entering into.”