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Volunteer State earns name as flood victims pull together

Ronnie Coleman says he's just happy to be alive after chest-high water inundated his home.
Ronnie Coleman says he's just happy to be alive after chest-high water inundated his home.
  • Tennessee officials say more than 21 dead, 27 counties labeled disaster areas
  • Woman who was married only last week clings to tree, swims to rooftop for refuge
  • Couple in Hendersonville tells station they escaped car, swam a mile to safety
  • Mother pleads to God for help finding son, who was swept away in a car

See how the cleanup in Nashville is going and how some of country music's biggest stars are contributing to those in need. Watch "AC360°" at 10 p.m. ET Friday.

Nashville, Tennessee (CNN) -- Tennessee is living up to its Volunteer State moniker as residents grapple with the aftermath of deadly flooding that left widespread damage and an untold number of displaced residents in its wake.

Neighbors are rescuing neighbors. Strangers are chipping in to clean up devastated homes and businesses. Although many have lost everything tangible, their optimism remains intact.

"I'm alive," Ronnie Coleman said. "Everything else, the rest of my life, if I have to fight cancer or whatever -- hey, man, it's going to be a piece of cake to what I went through."

After two days of torrential rain, Coleman waded through chest-high water this weekend at his home in the Whites Creek suburb of Nashville -- a daunting task for a man who can't swim.

His neighbor, Willie Mae Stricklandjordan, whose every belonging was ruined in the flooding, described what happened when Whites Creek overflowed: "The water just gushed in -- and it had a force to it."

Another neighbor, Evelyn Pearlbell, said she had to be rescued.

"They put this rope around me and pulled me through this water," she said. "Scary. Phew, I was so scared."

As of Friday morning, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said that 21 people had died, one from natural causes. Davidson County was hit the hardest, with 10 fatalities.

The federal government has declared 27 counties major disaster areas, the agency said.

Aid and supplies were flowing in to Tennessee, including 167 truckloads of water. Country singers, who hold Music City USA dear, pledged monetary donations, and some converged on Nashville to help with the cleanup.

Video: Nashville search and rescue
Video: Two still missing following Tenn. floods
Video: Nashville resident: 'I lost everything'

Reports of rescues emerged from the Coast Guard, local rescue teams and average citizens as helicopters and boats canvassed the region for survivors.

Nashville's police and fire departments were going door-to-door, making sure homes were evacuated. They tied yellow caution tape to the doors of places that had been cleared.

Ben Perkins said he and his son, Will, searched for survivors for about seven hours in Bellevue on Sunday, rescuing people from the River Plantation subdivision and from stranded cars on a nearby highway.

They initially took their boat to Will's great-grandmother's house, but she had been rescued, so Perkins began looking for others in need. Will manned a cellular phone, acting as a "control center" during the 15 to 18 rescue trips, his father said.

"Tennessee's come together. Nashville's come together," Perkins said. "There's a lot of devastation. There's going to be a lot of need for donations."

Even with all the rescue operations, many residents had close calls.

Betty Belle Nicks had to cling to a tree and then swim to the rooftop of her new home for refuge. Three small dogs made it to the roof and were saved, but Thursday night, she was looking for her yellow Labrador retriever, Ben, who swam away.

"If we could find Ben, it'd be the best wedding gift in the world," said Nicks, who was married last week.

Jamye Howell was driving his Jeep through Hendersonville on Sunday when he drove over a bridge and through what he thought was a puddle -- just "water standing on the road," he told CNN affiliate WZTV.

"Immediately, water was flowing in the car, and there was water flowing up on the windshield instantly," said Andrea Silvia, who was in the car with Howell.

"We decided that we needed to get out on top of the car and hope for the best," Howell told WZTV.

The two swam about a mile to safety, they told the station.

As the water continued to recede and rescue tales emerged Friday, many were struck by the devastation the flooding had wrought. Others still searched for loved ones, holding out hope that they may still be alive after almost a week.

Nashville has a spirit that won't be put down, so yes, I have no doubt that Nashville will come back.
--Resident Brenda Griffiths

In Pegram, cadaver dogs searched Thursday along the Harpeth River for Danny Tomlinson, a 39-year-old amateur fighter who works for a prosthetics company. Friends and family members joined the effort, which had been ongoing for five days and had covered an almost 15-mile stretch of river.

His car, which was swept away Saturday, was found Tuesday. A friend who was also in the car was found alive.

Tomlinson's mother said, "I'm trying to stay strong because I've got to have hope that they're going to find my son. I want to find him alive."

She pleaded to a higher power for help: "Please, God, guide us. If he is in the water, which I don't want to think that, guide us there. Guide us to him -- for closure."

With more disaster declarations looming and residents and officials left to wonder the true toll of the weekend's deluge, several Tennesseeans said they felt confident that the area would persevere.

"Nashville has a spirit that won't be put down, so yes, I have no doubt that Nashville will come back," said Brenda Griffiths, who wore plastic bags over her feet as she assisted with the cleanup effort in Bellevue.

Back in Whites Creek, evacuated residents said they feared returning home to see the devastation, but Reba Perkins said, "We prayed that whatever we found, it would be something we could learn from."

Carolyn Phillips said the flooding left her worried about her future, but optimism had not escaped her.

"I'm going to be OK," she said. "We're going to be OK."

CNN's Anderson Cooper, Martin Savidge, Gary Tuchman and Eliott C. McLaughlin contributed to this report.