2021 in review: Impact of the Waverly flood can still be felt

Waverly flooding sky 5 8/21/21
Posted at 6:24 PM, Dec 28, 2021

WAVERLY, Tenn. (WTVF) — At Waverly City Hall, just around the corner from Christmas wreaths and holiday lights, is a reminder of this town's darkest day. Twenty rows of crosses mark the names of the souls they lost when 17 inches of rain turned into a torrent of water.

The youngest victims were seven month old twins, Riley and Rileighana, when they were swept from their father's arms. "We heard a loud boom and it was the door busting in and water raging through our house," remembered their father, Matthew Rigney. "I wish there was something I could have done. I wish I would have just stayed there, I didn’t know if the whole house was about to collapse on us."

"Never, ever imagined we would be burying babies who are seven-months-old," said Danielle Hall, the children's mother.

The town lost brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. "She was the best momma ever. I’m guna miss my momma and I’m guna think about my momma every day for the rest of my life," said Kayla Brake, remembering her mother Regina Brake.

They lost friends, neighbors, and in some cases, heroes in the final moments of their lives. "She said it’s an emergency, and she made me understand. She didn’t just say it once, she made me understand, get out," said Jodie Stawski.

Mary Luten spent so much time getting Jodie and other neighbors out, she didn't have enough time to escape herself. "And she wasn’t even worried about herself. That’s what gets me. She didn’t care. She just worried about us. That’s a true hero," said Stawski.

Thankfully, some stories in the flood had happy endings. Lindsey Daniel and her family were rescued after being stuck for hours in their attic. "A mother with a kid who doesn’t know how to swim. It was scary," Daniel said. "I’m very thankful, I don’t know any other way to say it."

90 year old Buddy McNabb was preparing for death, when life had other plans. "I was standing there as the water came up," said McNabb. "I felt like probably I was relaxing because I was fixing to die, but all of the sudden the water got up to right there, it stayed there maybe five minutes, and then it started going down."

And then there's the story of Debra Ashton, who stood alone on the top of her pickup truck as the water continued to rise. "A wave in the middle of this ocean here thrusts me off the top of my truck about 8-10 feet in the water. Of course I go under and kept going under and I said, God you’ve got to provide me an anchor," said Ashton. "Well suddenly, here it comes,"

She latched onto a piece of wood that eventually carried her to a building and a group of people who could pull her to safety. "They said -- Debra how are we going to get down from here? I said, well God didn’t save us to leave us up here for the rest of our life. God’s going to send us a helicopter," said Ashton.

And sure enough, a helicopter came to the rescue. It was Tennessee volunteers piloting those helicopters, boats and even jet skis that made emotional reunions possible.

Then came a second deluge of volunteers, ready to help clean up. One family, so overwhelmed by the support, put up a sign saying thank you to the volunteers for all their hard work.

While most of the help came from those who had no connection to Waverly, people like Kathryn Woodall knew she had to help a place near and dear to her heart. "My mother is from Waverly and I spent all of my summers and Christmas breaks down here," said Woodall.

She figured she'd help others find lost treasures, but never expected she'd find one of her own in the house that used to belong to her grandfather. "Do you know who this is? And he handed me this picture and I said yes I do, that’s me. So they found a picture of me in the walls of the house with no damage, just right in the middle of all this chaos. A picture I’ve never seen of myself," explained Woodall.

Through it all, a slogan was born: Waverly Strong. Soon it began popping up on plywood boards and stickers sold to raise money. It was shown through acts of generosity like the 4 Wheels 4 Flood Victims fundraiser, put together by Tennessee River Valley News's Burton Staggs.

But lately, that slogan has been put to the test. Four months since the flood, entire neighborhoods of badly damaged homes have been leveled. So far, new construction hasn't taken it's place.

"It just rips you, it rips you apart," said Humphreys County Sheriff Chris Davis.

Sheriff Davis says between supply chain issues and fears of another flood, getting back to normal will take longer than they originally thought. "For normal everyday life to happen back in Waverly, TN and Humphreys County -- I think it’ll take 10 years," he said.

But it will only be a few more months for Lindsey Daniel. The family that rode out the flood from their attic is working to rebuild. "If we didn’t have all the help that we had, we wouldn’t be where we’re at," said Daniel.

She says, staying in Waverly brings them mixed emotions. "To me it was very traumatizing but it has actually been the best thing that’s happened to my family. It’s brought us closer and it’s gave us a different outlook on life. We definitely appreciate everything we’ve ever had," said Daniel.

There's no question, some damage from the flood may remain permanent reminders of pain, but if you ask Sheriff Davis, it's in these dark moments where it's easiest to see the light.

"We’re going to come through this, I think stronger and better than we’ve ever been," said Sheriff Davis.

One of Waverly's biggest needs is for more licensed electricians, plumbers and HVAC technicians to come take jobs in the area. The Mayor of Waverly tells NewsChannel 5 that many homeowners are forced to wait until someone becomes available.