'Not knowing is the hardest part': Hope of finding flooding survivors dims in Waverly, Tennessee
WAVERLY, Tenn. – The last time Marlana McIntosh slept soundly was Friday night. Now, days later and exhausted, she calls her boyfriend’s phone to hear his voice in her ear, even though she knows he won’t answer. She texts him, too, knowing the messages won’t be read.
It’s a ritual she has adopted since Saturday, when floodwaters took her boyfriend, Josh Hendrix. She pours through the countless messages the two exchanged, especially the last message he sent her: “I love you. … Thank you for not giving up on me. And just know you and them kids mean the world to me.”
McIntosh learned Sunday, more than 24 hours after Hendrix went missing, that his body was discovered, just five minutes after she finished praying search crews would find him. She later identified his body.
Not knowing Hendrix’s fate was agony. But finally knowing? The pain can’t be quantified.
This is the limbo loved ones are stuck in as they wait for answers and the possibility of a reunion dims. Officials said Tuesday they’re transitioning their searches from rescue missions to recovery.
At least 18 people are confirmed dead after the storm roared through the town of Waverly and Humphreys County on Saturday, which saw about 17 inches of record-shattering rain, according to reports from the National Weather Service. The rural county is home to about 20,000 people 70 miles west of Nashville.
Waverly Department of Public Safety chief Grant Gillespie revised the number of dead to 18 dead and 3 missing on Tuesday afternoon, down from 21 dead reported earlier in the day.
Gillespie said the changing total was the result of a counting error at the hospital, calling it "just an honest mistake." Three of those identified as victims of the flooding died of natural causes at the hospital around the time of the storms. They were misclassified and are separate from the three people still missing.
The dead included twin babies wrenched from their father’s arms, according to surviving family members and a foreman at country music star Loretta Lynn’s ranch.
President Joe Biden on Tuesday approved a major disaster declaration for Tennessee, which releases federal disaster assistance for the state to supplement recovery efforts. The declaration also makes federal funding available to residents of Humphreys County.
The total of missing people has fluctuated. The list includes those who were seen swept away in the floodwaters, but also people family members have not been able to reach after the flooding.
Grant Gillespie, Waverly Department of Public Safety chief, said Tuesday afternoon there were three missing in Humphreys County.
The Bryant family was among those waiting for news about about Lilly, a 15-year-old girl who was swept away by the waters. She was last seen by her sister floating away on a piece of debris, said Chelsea Simons, a close family friend handling interviews for the Bryants.
“The not knowing is the hardest part,” she said. “We searched for 11 hours (Sunday) until curfew."
Lilly began her freshman year of high school last week. Simons said Lilly, her sister Kaylynn and two friends went outside their home on Saturday to take photos of the rising water when “a wall of water came out of nowhere.” It smashed into the girls and dragged them apart.
Simons said during their searches throughout Waverly, they’ve discovered houses in the woods. Dozens of homes were ripped from their foundations by currents and deposited elsewhere throughout the city.
As sisters Jacquita Buchanan and Suzette Worke cleaned out their mother and stepfather's house, they said this round of flooding wasn't like anything before.
"Our mother knows if water reaches a certain point, they need to leave," Buchanan said. "During this one, the water all came all at once."
Their mother's house was sitting on top of a neighbor's smashed car, several feet from its original foundation. The only reason it hadn't drifted further down the road was that a tree in the front yard pinned it in place.
Buchanan said their father managed to get their mother to safety, but died when he went back to help other neighbors.
Jeff Buchanan was among those helping clear out a family member's house Monday.
Buchanan, who has lived in Waverly his whole life, said the town "will never be the same" after this flood.
"This has changed Waverly forever," he said.
Contributing: Stella Yu