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In Nashville, hope springs among the tears

NASHVILLE, TN – A week after severe storms and flooding wrecked havoc across this city, I watched as families living along Delray Drive, on the west side of town, ripped their homes down to bare nails, throwing out lifetimes of memories along with every possession they own.

The torrential storms and flooding killed 23 people across Tennessee and caused more than $1.5 billion in property damage in the Nashville area alone.

But what has surprised me most is how few tears I have seen flowing; instead, I've seen the uncompromising courage and tenacity of the people living here.

And, of course, there are the tragedies.  

SLIDESHOW: Deadly flooding in Tennessee and Mississippi

Swept away by the rising water
When the Richland Creek spilled over its banks and flooded this neighborhood, Andrew England, 79, and Martha England, 82, didn't get out in time. The elderly couple drowned in the family home where they had raised their six children.

Neighbor Bernon Mayton tried to convince them to leave with him. "He was in a wheelchair and the wife used a walker. I knew they'd need help getting out, but they wouldn't come. They wanted to wait for family to come get them."

Neighbors say one son tried to come to their rescue, but the flood waters rose so fast he arrived too late.

Mayton said he heard that the Edwards were found holding hands. He is haunted by that image and his inability to convince them to leave. "I will go to my grave with this regret in my heart."

A funeral mass is being held Monday for the couple at the same church they were married in 59 years ago.

Mayton doubted he would have time to attend the church service. With the help of friends and the kindness of strangers, he and his wife are still cleaning up their own mess.

Although, it's probably more accurate to say they are removing the mess.

On the orders of local health officials, anything the contaminated floodwater touched must be dumped. "We lost just about everything we own. My clothes, the kids' toys, refrigerator, television, beds and all the other furniture."

Up and down the street other families are at work, piling their sopping wet possessions on the curb.

Like many here, police officer Roger Tidwell had no flood insurance. Emotional, he explained that his family has lived in this home since 1964. "I just paid it off in January. We're going to take it one day at a time, one minute at a time."

Flood victim Mark Carlisle worked for hours, stacking lamps and vinyl records, saggy stuffed animals and family photos outside his house. Pointing to the gutter, Carlisle said "Your whole life. That's 31 years of accumulating gone in a matter of minutes."

But, like many others here, Carlisle is just thankful to be alive.

That sentiment motivated Gloria Walters to lend a helping hand. Her home, which sits on higher ground, escaped the flooding. "But we all feel the pain," said Walters.

She knows some of the people she's helping but not others. "It don't matter," said Walters. "We are all family."

'I couldn't leave them there'

Johnny Morgan is another person who escaped the floodwaters. Many here are calling him a hero.

When the water rose four feet, Morgan and his son Cody steered their boats down Delray Drive, looking for Morgan's sister and niece who live at the end of a long winding road. But, they never made it to her house. "There were people stranded on roofs and yelling out of windows. I couldn't leave them there." For over six hours, they pulled about three dozen people to safety.

While he hasn't spoken to his sister, a neighbor told Morgan that she made it to safety.

Even after the water receded, Morgan didn't stop.

Taking time off from work, even though he admitted he could use the money, Morgan has been spending his days driving his truck around the neighborhood, handing out cold water, sandwiches and hand-sanitizer to flood victims. He even finagled a friend to loan him two Porta-Johns, which he set up at each end of the neighborhood. He brought a pair of dry shoes to a woman cleaning out her friend's living room.

Hundreds of volunteers like Morgan and his son have swarmed into this neighborhood, helping folks cope with the hardships by hauling trash and handing out clean clothes and fresh food.

Morgan says the worst of times brings out the best in people. "People need to know they haven't been forgotten."