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‘The thing that nightmares are made of’: Looking back on the Waverly floods one month later

Updated: Jul 13, 2022

This is part one of two in a Vision series on Waverly, Tennessee, sharing stories from the nearby town that suffered devastating floods in August. This coverage examines the aftermath of the disaster, the help provided in the recovery effort and Waverly’s connection to the Belmont community.

The town of Waverly, Tennessee, in Humphreys County nearly drowned the morning of Aug. 21.

A downpour unlike anything the area had seen before forced the Trace Creek to flood, sending fierce, 8-foot-high currents down the streets of the town of 4,000, obliterating 176 homes and leaving 20 dead in its wake.

And one month out, its residents are still recovering, picking through the piles of rubble that sit on the sides of the roads, watching as demolition crews move through the neighborhood and tear down their damaged homes.

“It still looks like a war zone,” said lifelong Waverly resident Debra Ashton, who was launched into the currents as the water rose, and ended up losing her home. “They’ve demoed lots of homes, and, you know, took your life away in a dump truck. Sometimes that’s hard to swallow.”

Ashton’s heavily damaged family home of 56 years will come down on Friday. The house on her rental property next door is already long gone, dragged off its foundations by the sheer force of August’s floodwaters.

All across the community, just an hour’s drive from Belmont, survivors are still picking through the destruction left by the water, which turned roads into rivers and the quiet crosstown creek into a raging tsunami. The force of the water washed away buildings and cars, ravaged schools and churches and left many residents with nothing.

But the effects of the floods don’t end at the county line. Five Belmont students call Humphreys County their home, and two hail from Waverly itself — a small, tight-knit town just off Highway 70, only 66 miles west of Nashville.

The flooding was a “no notice” disaster, said American Red Cross philanthropy officer Leigh Elliot. No notice, meaning the people of Waverly had no time to prepare and no time to escape.

The sheer volume of rainfall, combined with the basin-like geography of the town, caused the water to consume Waverly in a matter of hours

Ashton, who was swept up in the currents and airlifted off the roof of the town’s Exxon station by helicopter, still remembers that day

“I’ve had nightmares at night, waking up, feeling like I was underwater,” said Ashton, who fought against the current for five blocks.

“It was like I was in a pit. I was in a whirlwind of water, just like a washing machine cycling me down.”

And in the weeks since the flood, Waverly and its residents have weathered a lot more rainfall, including heavy storms brought on by Hurricane Ida.

“I really panic when it rains, especially when I see puddles of water,” said Ashton. “Some days I get emotional. Some days I’m thankful because I know God only has something better for me. Some days I’m still angry,” she said.

Ashton plans to rebuild her home on higher ground.

She doesn’t want to leave her hometown, but she also doesn’t want to put herself at risk again.

After the flood, the Red Cross was one of the first organizations on the scene, delivering food, medical assistance and grief support to Waverly residents like Ashton. Since then, Tennessee’s recovery organizations and good Samaritans alike have come to the town to assist in cleanup and distribute supplies after the disaster.

One of the initial Red Cross responders to the disaster, Sherri McKinney has witnessed her fair share of disasters as a former reporter and the current regional director of communications for the Red Cross’ Nashville headquarters. But the aftermath of the Waverly flooding was the worst thing, she said, she’s ever seen.

“It’s the thing that nightmares are made of,” McKinney said.

And after facing these nightmares, Waverly’s residents still need help.

In the hours following the flood, search and rescue teams scoured the town for bodies. They spray-painted Xs on the sides of the buildings at ground zero, marking those that had been searched for survivors and tallying the dead in neon numbers on the outside walls.

A month later, some of those ruined buildings have come down. Some still stand, their walls bearing those grim reminders of the morning the water rose and lives were lost.

“The Xs are still there, they will just have to be painted over in time,” said Ashton.

PHOTO: What remains of Debra Ashton’s rental property in Waverly, next door to her family home, one week after the house was taken by the floods. Belmont Vision / Sarah Maninger

This article was written by Sarah Maninger and Anna Jackson. Updated Oct. 1.

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