Mountain of debris in creek prompts fears of repeat deadly flooding
WAVERLY, Tenn. (WSMV) - The East Brook Animal Clinic was one of the first to be hit.
Veterinary technician Jessica Mallard was used to flooding, given that the clinic stands just down Highway 70 from Trace Creek, which routinely spills outside its banks during heavy rains.
But she said on the day of Aug. 21, 2021, the water trapped her inside the clinic within minutes.
Before she raced to the attic to use bolt cutters to cut through the roof to escape, Mallard took a photo that shoes the flood water rising halfway up the windows to the clinic.
“It was just crazy how the water started coming out of nowhere,” Mallard said. “It was terrifying because it was so high outside. If any of those windows break, it’s going to suck in here and I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
The staff at the clinic, like many residents of the small Humphreys County town, are left to wonder: what caused so much water to come so quickly from the creek?
It’s why WSMV Investigates returned to the creek nearly a year after the flooding that claimed 20 lives and found mountains of debris still resting on the banks of the creek.
Many residents, along with claims in a lawsuit, say uncleared debris from the creek that clogged a culvert was ultimately responsible for the water to back up like an instant lake, ultimately breaking through raised land that acted as a levy, and road towards the town like a tidal wave.
When WSMV showed Mallard that we found a mountain of debris still in the creek near the culvert, she shook her head.
“It’s terrible. It’s gonna happen again if they don’t get that out,” Mallard said.
A series of reporting by WSMV4 Investigates revealed why the town was so caught off guard by the flood waters that day.
Trace Creek winds through a culvert owned and operated by CSX Railroad.
Several families of the deceased then sued CSX Railroad after WSMV’s reporting, claiming that the company “allowed various debris to clog its culvert.”
The lawsuit also claims that debris, “created significant blockage to the flow of Trace Creek.”
New photos obtained by WSMV4 Investigates from the day of the flood show the water pooling behind the railroad tracks, which stands on raised earth.
Other photos show how the land blew out in at least two sections, allowing the water to burst through, flood Highway 70 and rush towards the town like a tidal wave.
WSMV Investigates waded into the creek in early July, looking to see if debris continued to exist in substantial amounts near the culvert.
What we found was a mountain of debris less than 100 yards away from the culvert, filled with fallen trees, trunks and limbs, capped off with a giant tire.
We showed the staff at the veterinary clinic video of the debris near the culvert.
WSMV4 Investigates also found mounds of rock and gravel that fill up the creek had piled up beneath the culvert.
While one section of the culvert, where water passes through, was clear, so much rock had built up in the next passageway that it could limit how much water could flow through.
“You can’t leave that in the creeks like that,” Mallard said.
WSMV4 Investigates had earlier exposed the clash between local officials and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation over how to clear the creek.
Humphreys County officials blamed too strict of a permit process by TDEC for hampering their ability to dredge the creek and remove debris.
A spokesman for TDEC confirmed that no city or company had requested a permit to clear the creek since the flood.
It is unclear if the remaining debris discovered remained after the flood or was piled there.
On Thursday, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell toured Waverly to see the progress that had been made since the flood.
WSMV4 Investigates asked her if she was aware of the controversy surrounding the debris in the creek and how it may have fueled the deadly flood.
“I don’t know the specifics about the creeks here. I would have to defer to your state and local officials to give you a specific answer to the nature of the problem here,” Criswell said.
Attending Criswell’s tour was TEMA Director Patrick Sheehan, who spoke with WSMV4 Investigates about the creek.
“The creek needs to be cleaned out. There are places that are cleared where homeowners have had access,” Sheehan said. “We’ll take a look at how we organize that, help the community get Trace Creek cleared out.”
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