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Some survivors remain traumatized a year after a flood killed 20 in Waverly, Tenn.


It's been one year since a deadly flood tore through the small town of Waverly, Tenn., and it killed 20 people. There's been a lot of effort to rebuild, but many are still a long way from a full recovery. As Damon Mitchell with member station WPLN reports, it is still unclear if the town will ever be the same.

DAMON MITCHELL, BYLINE: Last August, the water got so deep that it trapped families and forced others to their rooftops. Looking out a foggy window, Linda Almond recorded a glimpse of the flood on social media as the brown water carried debris past her home.


LINDA ALMOND: Well, if anybody seen me on Facebook Live, we're being flooded right now in Waverly, Tenn. - really scary.

MITCHELL: Those would be among Almond's last words. The water took her life that morning. A flash flood watch had been issued the evening before, but almost no one was prepared for a historic rainfall. It overflowed the local creek that runs through Waverly. And by 8 a.m. that next morning, Linda Balthrop was also trapped by the flood and recorded video as floodwaters poured into her home.


LINDA BALTHROP: It came fast - in a flash.


MITCHELL: The sound of helicopter blades filled the air while rescue boats cruised on the floodwaters below. Balthrop, who's in her mid-70s, survived the flood with her husband. But like many others, the experience was enough for them to count their losses and leave Waverly. They moved closer to their daughter and grandchildren in Mississippi.

BALTHROP: Coming back to Waverly and seeing it, I kind of admire the people that have stuck around 'cause it's really depressing here. It really is.

MITCHELL: They'd been in their old home nearly 50 years. But now she's ready to put those memories behind her.

BALTHROP: If I were here, it wouldn't be so easy to do that 'cause it's all around us, you know - all this destruction. But I think we're better off in - where we are now.

MITCHELL: Balthrop lived just a short walk north of the creek. She says she had the highest house in the neighborhood and wasn't considered part of the flood plain. But even her home wasn't safe when 21 inches fell in a single day. Floodwaters damaged dozens of businesses and destroyed most of Waverly's public housing units. Buddy Frazier grew up in Waverly and is now mayor of the town. But the place he knew before the flood could be slipping away as people like Linda Balthrop and the family he rented a house to have left.

BUDDY FRAZIER: They all survived, but then they had to relocate. So we lost a good family. That's another one of the casualties is what it is.

MITCHELL: With fewer people in town, Waverly could see a loss in sales and property tax revenue. Frazier says it'll take many years to get Waverly back on his feet. As that happens, federal agencies are conducting flood studies to prevent something like this from happening again. Events like this will be increasingly likely, scientists say, because climate change is leading to heavier rainfalls.

FRAZIER: One of the studies will take 18 months. So, you know, we've got to be patient while that's going on.

MITCHELL: For those who decided to stick around, like Gary Jackson, the destruction has been hard to shake.

GARY JACKSON: Sometimes it's waking up in the middle of the night because you're having a bad dream.

MITCHELL: Jackson moved to Waverly in 2017. He says his mind replays the moment his dog was sucked underneath the raging water.

JACKSON: Sometimes it's just not being able to sleep at all because you're just overthinking about what happened and what you could have done differently or, you know, just worrying about what's going to happen in the future, you know.

MITCHELL: Jackson's house is one of more than a dozen being rebuilt by a volunteer group. It represents a bit of progress since the first days after the flood, when roads had washed away and cars were stuck in trees.

Why come back even after, like, losing a home and just all this traumatic stuff that happened?

JACKSON: It's going to sound so cheesy. I always wanted to own a house, and I never thought I was going to be able to because I've been disabled for a very long time. And I - we were able to get this house. And I just didn't - I just couldn't bring myself to give it up.

MITCHELL: Jackson has Type 1 diabetes, which caused him to lose a leg. He's been staying outside of Waverly and is now getting ready to move back. But the damage is still hard to miss. The flooded elementary and middle schools are still vacant. Kids were supposed to start school in a remodeled boot factory, but there have been construction delays. Looking down his block is heartbreaking.

JACKSON: And that house is empty. They're all empty until you get to the other end of the street. And most of those are gone. Debbie's gone. And I forget his name - he's gone right now. Don't know if they're coming back or not. I haven't talked to them. But it's just lonely. It just looks lonely.

MITCHELL: Waverly has a history of flooding. No one knows when another deadly flood could come through or if the town will ever fully recover. Jackson says he just hopes that things can get back to the way they were. For NPR News, I'm Damon Mitchell in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Damon Mitchell
Damon Mitchell is a journalist from Detroit, currently WPLN's Emerging Voices Fellow. Previously, he was a fellow at Detour Detroit, where he wrote about urban farming, education and inequity in Detroit's Brightmoor and Lafayette Park neighborhoods. He's also written for Next City, JSTOR Daily, Business Insider and Narratively. Damon graduated with a bachelor's degree in Public Relations from Wayne State University.