28 killed in US storms

Rescuers using boats and jet-skis plucked stranded residents from their flooded homes today as the death toll from weekend storms in the US rose to 28 in three states.

The flash floods caused by record-breaking amounts of rain caught many off-guard, forcing thousands to flee their homes and hotels.

The rapidly rising waters led to the deaths of 17 people in Tennessee alone, including 10 in Nashville, and officials feared that the death toll could increase.

"Do we suspect to find more people? Probably so. We certainly hope that it's not a large number," said Metro Nashville Davidson County Fire Chief Kim Lawson.

Muddy waters poured over the banks of Nashville's swollen Cumberland River, spilling into Music City's historic downtown streets.

Though the 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.

Weekend storms dumped more than 13in of rain in two days in the Nashville area, leading to a quick rise of the Cumberland River and its tributaries. The swollen river crested Monday evening at nearly 12ft above flood stage in Nashville and is not expected to drop below its flood stage of 40ft until Wednesday morning, National Weather Service meteorologist Mark Rose said.

About five miles east of downtown, flooding forced about 1,500 guests from the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Centre to evacuate to a high school, indefinitely shutting down one of the nation's largest hotel and convention centres.

Water also flooded parts of the Grand Ole Opry House and Opry Mills Mall, which replaced the old Opryland USA theme park. Though it was not immediately known how much water was in the concert hall, managers were finding alternative space for upcoming shows.

Though the rain stopped falling yesterday, the river continued to inch upward in some places. 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 the colour of milk chocolate.

As flood waters receded elsewhere, more victims were found in Nashville and other parts on Tennessee on Monday evening.

The weekend storms also killed six people in Mississippi and four in Kentucky, including one man whose truck ran off the road and into a flooded creek. One person was killed by a tornado in western Tennessee.

Governor Phil Bredesen declared 52 of Tennessee's 95 counties as disaster areas after finishing an aerial tour and said he talked with President Barack Obama.

"I've never seen flooding like this," he said.

Jim Moser, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Nashville, said a slow-moving weather system pumped up Gulf moisture into highly unstable air over Tennessee. The result was strong storms dumping heavy rains that caught most of the city and surrounding area by surprise.

Mayor Karl Dean and city officials repeatedly implored residents to conserve water after one of two water treatment plants was flooded.

As the rising Cumberland River threatened a levee that protected the remaining plant, neighbourhoods and businesses north-west of downtown, city workers and about 200 volunteers frantically filled and stacked sandbags.