Nashville, Tennessee struggles in flood’s aftermath

By Naomi Spencer
12 May 2010

Record flooding in the US mid-south May 2 killed at least 31 people, mostly in Tennessee, and destroyed thousands of homes. An unprecedented 13.5 inches of rain fell on the region in a two-day period. With millions throughout the state without power, water, or other basic services, economically strained communities have been left to cobble together volunteer services and shelters.

In Nashville, at least 10 people died after the Cumberland River overflowed its banks and breached a levee in the downtown area. Two Nashville men remain missing after being caught in floodwaters.

The river crested on May 3 at nearly 52 feet in the city, and a record 62.5 feet at Clarksville. These levels are far higher than could be controlled by Cumberland’s dam system, built in the 1960s.

Other area rivers, including the Duck and Harpeth, similarly broke records. All of western Tennessee as well as Kentucky and part of Mississippi were affected. Fifty-two of Tennessee’s 95 counties have been designated as federal disaster areas. In Kentucky 70 counties, more than half of the state’s counties, along with 25 cities have declared an emergency. Most of the counties are located in the south and central area of Kentucky, but the entire state has been affected.

In addition to the flooding, severe weather spawned at least 3 tornadoes in the Nashville region and 13 around Memphis, which contributed severe damage. The storms have been characterized as the worst disaster to strike the region since the Civil War.

According to a May 9 report in the Nashville City Paper, water threatened to spill over the top of a major dam controlling the Cumberland River on May 2, coming “inches from overrunning the facilities the Army Corps of Engineers uses to manage the water level of Old Hickory Lake and the releases into the Cumberland.”

Army Corps officials, worried the dam would give way, released 5.4 billion gallons of water into the river. The floodwater raced downstream into populated areas, including Nashville, where residents had not been forewarned.

A tent city under an Interstate bypass on the banks of the Cumberland was completely swept away. According to local press reports, some 140 homeless people were living there. No deaths were reported, but the homeless community lost everything it had.

The poorest people—the elderly, disabled, very young, uninsured—are faced with deep and long-term problems, although their suffering receives only passing attention. A photograph published May 11 in the Tennessean newspaper, for example, explains in a caption: “Roy Holt, 88, is staying in his home on Lewis Street, which was flooded. He has nowhere to go because his wheelchair was destroyed in the flood, and he said he hadn’t had anything to eat.” Such individuals have had to rely only on the limited charity of others, many suffering losses themselves.

Flood survivors often arrive at emergency shelters with nothing but the clothes on their backs. One Nashville woman who was brought with her six-month-old baby to a shelter by rescuers told the AP, “I have nothing … I have nowhere to go. My child has nothing. All he has is food and a couple diapers, and that’s because the shelter gave them to us.” She said she had not been able to return to her apartment or bathe since she had arrived.

Infrastructure sustained widespread damage throughout the tri-state area, although government agencies have not completed their assessments. Several interstates had to be shut down in the area, and the main CSX rail line between Nashville and Memphis was closed after two bridges were swept away. Officials for the rail line have said it would remain closed for four to six weeks for repairs.

In Nashville, the property damage has been enormous. On Monday, Mayor Karl Dean announced that private property damage alone was expected to total at least $1.56 billion. No property damage estimate has been given for the state or mid-South region as a whole. Many residents had no flood insurance.

The amount of emergency funding urgently required dwarfs the sums the state and federal administrations have set aside. Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen stated that only $17 million in funds could be made available. The Obama administration on Tuesday raised its initial award of $4.1 million to $28 million. The Tennessean reported May 11 that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had registered 18,000 residents for assistance.

Infrastructure in Nashville was paralyzed for days last week. City bus service, school, trash collection, and other basic services were all halted. Some city offices began reopening in limited capacities on May 6.

One of the city’s two water treatment plants was submerged in the flood, causing a shortage of clean water and posing contamination and sanitation dangers. At its lowest point, the city had been operating at only 37 percent in water supply. As of Monday, May 10, Metro Water Services director Scott Potter estimated that the city was running at 88 percent capacity and said it would be another week at minimum to bring the damaged plant back online. Afterward, the water must be tested for safety by state inspectors and other experts.

Until then, residents are limited to using water from the single operative plant and must line up at distribution locations for bottled water for cooking and drinking. The water distribution has been managed entirely by Nashville volunteers, who according to the City Paper have already put in 30,000 hours of unpaid work.

Compounding the flooding was the failure of the city’s aging and inadequate drainage system. A spokesperson for the Metro Water Services told the City Paper that many drainage pipes were completely washed out, which according to the paper was “either because the culverts were too small to accommodate the runoff, or they were blocked by debris that choked the flow.”

Much of the city is run with decades’ old pipes, and the paper noted, “Most new minor Metro construction is equipped to handle the kind of flooding that occurs once every 10 years.” Dr. Bruce Tschantz, a University of Tennessee civil engineering professor, commented to the City Paper, “If the capability of the drainage system is less than what comes in, something’s gotta give… It builds up in the streets and the backyards. Finally, the backyards spill over and it gets into places that have never been flooded before.”

Although the water in Nashville has largely receded, the Mississippi River is currently under a flood advisory, standing at one foot under the 34-foot flood level. Any significant rainfall in the next week could compound high waters and crippled infrastructure.

Flooding presents other longer-term threats. Muggy weather and standing water pose further human health risks from toxins, bacteria and disease. In Memphis and Shelby County, the health department has raised concerns over mosquitoes. Cases of West Nile Virus and St. Louis Encephalitis have been documented in the area previously and post-flood conditions can encourage a boom in the presence of mosquitoes, carriers of these and other serious illnesses.

Another less-reported impact of the flooding is the crop damage in the rural west Tennessee region. Thousands of acres of crops have been swept away along with a tremendous amount of topsoil; farmland that is damaged to such an extent may not be useable again for several years.

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture has reported that the storms flushed out recently set corn and cotton crops and damaged livestock throughout the west and middle areas of the state. In Kentucky, corn and soybean crops have been devastated, according to state officials.

Floodwaters damage standing crops, increase the chances for crop loss due to mold and other blight, as well as transport stored fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals into the water supply. Many farmers lacked adequate insurance against flooding, and do not have the money to invest in replanting and new equipment.

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