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Floodwaters in Tennessee overtook residents within minutes. Rescuers won’t stop until everyone is accounted for

“We’ve experienced a devastating loss of life,” Waverly Police and Fire Chief Grant Gillespie said during a Sunday afternoon news conference.

Local officials expressed their sadness and shock at the press conference after rain inundated the region Saturday, sweeping away people, homes and vehicles as residents attempted to escape the rushing water.

The flooding damaged infrastructure, schools, homes and other facilities in Waverly, Gillespie said.

Officials earlier said up to 45 people were missing, but Gillespie later said they were able to lower the number of missing by more than half as cell phone service returned and people were finally able to reach their loved ones. The chief said he didn’t expect the number of missing to increase significantly.

Humphreys County Sheriff Chris Davis said, “We need patience and prayers,” adding people should stay out of the area as they continue their operations.

Patrick Sheehan, director of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) said rescue and recovery efforts “will go on until we account for all missing Tennesseans.”

“It’s pretty devastating on the ground,” Sheehan explained, adding, “We’re going to see mostly recovery efforts at this point rather than rescue efforts.”

Among the dead is a foreman who worked on Loretta Lynn’s ranch in Humphreys County, a Facebook statement from the country music legend said Sunday. Wayne Spears, was the longtime foreman her property, the statement said.

“There are no words at the ranch today…only tears. Our ranch family is our family,” Lynn said in her Facebook post. “He took such good care of things here on the ranch for us. He’s one of us and the whole Lynn family Is heartbroken. Please pray for his precious family and friends.”

Sheehan said the Tennessee Health Department confirmed 16 deaths so far, and acknowledged the discrepancy with the number reported by local authorities. He said it was because the health department has a strict process for validating deaths.

Water was flooding homes within minutes, governor says

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee surveyed the flood damage in Humphreys County Sunday and called it “a very tragic and difficult situation.”

The large amount of rain that fell — a record 14 inches, according to the governor — created “devastating flooding in the community” and a “tremendous loss of life,” Lee said.

Lee said he spoke with survivors of the flooding and was shocked to hear how quickly their situation became dire.

“They would see water in their yard and then within minutes it was coming into their home,” Lee said, adding residents went from “seeing floodwaters rise to not being able to escape their homes.”

Lee described the aftermath as tragic. “Homes washed off their foundations, cars strewn about the community. It is a devastating picture of loss and heartache,” he said.

The governor said first responders, including the National Guard, will remain on the scene as search and rescue operations continue.

“What we do know is that it’s incredibly difficult and our hearts and our prayers need to be for these communities, for those folks in that community, many of them who have suffered, not only the loss of their homes and their property, but the loss of family members and friends,” Lee said.

Sheriff describes pain of not being able to help everyone

As emergency responders attempted to get into the flooded area Saturday night, Davis, the Humphreys County sheriff, said the situation was complicated by phone lines being down and roads being washed out.

He likened it to the feeling of a mother not being able to reach her child.

Kalyn Clayton, 16, surveys the damaged kitchen of a home while volunteering with his church youth group in Waverly, Tennessee.

“Knowing that you have people that stayed that can’t get help … I have people floating down the creek that nobody can get to, and nobody can help. It hurts. It hurts,” he said, holding back tears.

Waverly Mayor Buddy Frazier said the loss of life is unlike anything the town has ever experienced.

“I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve been through a lot of events here and this one really took me back,” Frazier said. “This is bad, this is bad. The number of people it affected the number of lives lost.”

CNN’s Keith Allen contributed to this report.

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