NASHVILLE, Tenn. —Muddy waters poured over the banks of Nashville's swollen Cumberland River on Monday, spilling into Music City's historic downtown streets while the death toll from the weekend storms climbed to 28 people in three states.
The flash floods caused by record-breaking rains caught many off guard, forcing thousands to frantically flee their homes and hotels.
The rapidly rising waters killed 17 people in Tennessee alone, including 10 in Nashville, and officials feared that the death toll could increase. Officials announced the latest deaths late Monday after receding flood waters revealed six more bodies.
The weekend storms also killed six people in Mississippi and four in Kentucky. One person was also killed by a tornado in western Tennessee.
Though Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium — the former home of the Grand Ole Opry — and the recording studios of Music Row were not in immediate danger, parts of other top Nashville tourist spots including the Country Music Hall of Fame and The Grand Ole Opry House were flooded.
"You never think something like this will happen in Nashville," said Stan Milstead of Tulsa, as he watched the dark brown river waters creep deeper into downtown.
Weekend storms dumped more than 13 inches of rain in two days in the Nashville area, leading to a quick rise of the Cumberland River and its tributaries. Authorities closed streets in downtown Nashville as forecasters predicted the Cumberland would crest there early as Monday night about 12 feet above flood stage.
About five miles east of downtown, flooding forced about 1,500 guests from the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center to evacuate Sunday night to a high school, indefinitely shutting down one of the nation's largest hotel and convention centers.
"We had just finished eating and suddenly they said: 'Go! Go! Go!' " Gerdi Bauerle, 70, who was visiting from Munich, Germany, said Monday. "And we said 'Wait, we haven't even paid.' "
Up to 10 feet of water stood in parts of the hotel, as restaurant chairs and crates of wine glasses floated by. A life-sized Elvis statue missing his guitar lay on its back in the nearby parking lot of the Wax Museum of the Stars.
Authorities and volunteers in fishing boats, an amphibious tour bus and a canoe scooped up about 500 trapped vacationers at the Wyndham Resort along the river near Opryland. Rescuers had to steer through a maze of underwater hazards including submerged cars, some with their tops barely visible above floodwaters.
Gov. Phil Bredesen declared 52 of Tennessee's 95 counties as disaster areas after finishing an aerial tour and said he talked with President Obama. Bredesen saw flooding so extensive that tree tops looked like islands as he flew from Nashville to western Tennessee.
"I've never seen flooding like this," he said.