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River still on the rise in Tenn.

Photo by Samuel M. Simpkins

Photo by Samuel M. Simpkins

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Muddy waters poured over the banks of Nashville's swollen Cumberland River on Monday, spilling into Music City's historic downtown streets while rescuers using boats and Jet Skis plucked stranded residents away from their flooded homes as the death toll from the weekend storms climbed to 26 people in three states.

The flash floods caused by record-breaking amounts of rain caught many here off-guard, forcing thousands to frantically flee their homes and hotels. The rapidly rising waters killed 15 people in Tennessee alone, including eight in Nashville, and officials feared that the death toll could increase.

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.

''You never think something like this will happen in Nashville,'' said Stan Milstead of Tulsa, Okla., as he watched the dark brown river waters creep deeper into downtown.

Authorities closed off streets in downtown Nashville with the Cumberland River forecast to crest as early as Monday night at about 12 feet above flood stage after weekend storms dumped more than 13 inches of rain in two days.

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

''We had just finished eating and suddenly they said: 'Go! Go! Go!''' Gerdi Bauerle, 70, who was visiting from Munich, Germany, said Monday. ''And we said 'Wait, we haven't even paid.'''

Up to 10 feet of water stood in parts of the hotel, as restaurant chairs and crates of wine glasses floated by. A life-sized Elvis statue missing his guitar was laying on its back in the nearby parking lot of the Wax Museum of the Stars.

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 alternate space for upcoming shows.

Though the rain stopped falling on Monday, the river continued to inch upward and 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 color of milk chocolate.

Bill Crousser was riding his Jet Ski past a neighbor's house when he rescued a man, his wife and their dog moments before flames from a fire in the garage broke through the roof. The woman was taken to a hospital to be examined.

Gov. 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. Bredesen saw flooding so extensive that tree tops looked like islands as he flew from Nashville to western Tennessee.