Beneath the Surface: Nashville’s Flood of 2010

Almost completely ignored by the national media (eg. CNN’s big headline on May 3 was — and I cringe — “Catastrophic” Flood Being Ignored?, which was just an iReport), the flood destroyed thousands of homes and killed at least 34 people.

This is a first-hand account, posted on  “Confessions of a CyberCasualty”:

JoeBot, "Disaster Tourist" (Photo: Andrew Edman)

The rain came on May Day without mercy, drenching Middle Tennessee for nearly two days. The downpour finally let up on Sunday — May 2 — immediately drawing disaster-tourists with cameras in hand.

I join them downtown on 1st Avenue, by the Cumberland River. The water marker reads 47′, and it’s climbing fast. Gawkers gather around to document the progress.

The riverfront stage is completely submerged at this point, but that doesn’t stop the show. We all watch an endless parade of municipal trashcans, propane tanks, dock stairs, basketballs, and uprooted trees floating down the river. Massive clumps of branches and assorted trash wind along like a flotsam serpent, carrying flocks of hungry birds who pick drowning bugs from its back.

A spectacle can really bring folks together. Further downstream, an older couple in church clothes stand with their granddaughter, discussing the scene with a burly Titans fan. Next to them is a loud managerial type and a wizened vagrant couple. The Titans fan says, “There’s yo’ groundhog right ‘ere.” He points and they all look over the wall. Below is a lonely groundhog, poking around the trash and branches for a few green shoots. It appears that he’s trapped on what little embankment is left. The loud button-down guy says to the vagrant couple:

“He certainly looks corpulent to me.” They nod in agreement, looking bewildered. “I could make a couple of juicy burgers out of that little guy.” The vagrant couple continue to nod, but are obviously appalled at the notion. “I’m serious. Groundhog is delicious.”

I go back to Fort Nashborough to watch the water marker with the other disaster-tourists. It’s up almost up to 48’ now — history in the making. Two little grey-mustachioed men chat up everyone who passes by. This is Ron and Don. They are identical twins pushing sixty, tiny and full of energy — former horse-jockeys, in fact. Don jumps up and down and yells to his twin in a munchkin voice: “Look, Ron, a boat, a boat!” A motor boat drifts backwards down the river. “Look, it’s in reverse!” They laugh.

Ron and Don have a plastic soda bottle. Their plan is to put a message inside with their contact information and a historical statement about the ‘Flood of 2010,’ and then send it down the river to see how far it will go. “They’ll probably just send us a ticket for littering though.” Ron points to a bridge downstream.

“‘Tent City’ was right under that bridge. Lots of people lived down there. They did their own landscaping, everything. I hope they got their tents out before it all washed away.”

Suddenly Don yelps: “Look, Ron, a baby squirrel!” We follow Don’s finger, and sure enough there is a tiny squirrel hopping around the bushes. One man snaps a picture before turning the lens back to his kids, who stand arm-in-arm before the rising river, smiling. Growling metal songs roar out of Coyote Ugly as the rain begins sprinkling again.  Ron steps onto a ledge and holds his umbrella over my head.

* * *

I was supposed to put up a rig at Bridgestone Arena’s rehearsal hall the next morning — May 3. On my way to work, I see that the Cumberland River now spans from LP Field to 2nd Avenue. Coyote Ugly — and most of 1st Avenue — is completely submerged. The arena manager comes up the stairs to let us in, stating with grim humor: “The water you are about to walk through is not rain.” Indeed, the torrent bubbling up from every crack and drain on the lower level smells like a thousand back alley piss-puddles. Though it has just begun, this murky green pool will eventually rise to the top of the front-row dashers. What a way to get the day off.

This is happening all over Music City. The lower levels of hotels, parking garages, restaurants, shopping malls, and industrial complexes are filling with urban sludge. Soundcheck’s warehouse — where the stars store their precious guitars, amps, and drumkits — is a swimming pool. Cars and trucks swept away like toys. Entire neighborhoods destroyed. Thousands of people watch helplessly as their homes disappear, inch by muddy inch. Some are trapped and waiting to be rescued. A few are dead, floating behind closed doors.

Photo: Rick Prince

Out on the footbridge overlooking the city, the sun shines down on a flock of disaster-tourists. Mothers push new double-strollers, fathers aim cameras at rescue helicopters, shirtless meatheads flex for teenage girls, fat women wheeze up the incline, children wade through the water in flip-flops. It feels like summer vacation. I even find a wild-eyed vagrant with a big green rucksack swimming around in the 1st Avenue floodwater.

Down at Bicentennial Park, it is completely silent. A lone man stands on a distant shore (across the park), taking pictures. I walk to the floodwater’s edge beneath the train trestles and read the inscriptions on the wall. Surprising irony sinks in as I mull over facts, quotes, and poetic excerpts extolling the glory of Tennessee rivers. One reads:

I’m going out to smell fresh rain on summer dust and prehistoric water odors of the old French Broad in flood.

Won’t you come too?

Wilma Dykeman, 1955

Another reads:

Flooding is the most widespread and most frequent natural hazard in Tennessee.

I suppose the writing is on the wall. I suddenly think about Pops — whose house sits on Seven Mile Creek — and decide to give him a call.

* * *

Pops has been a roadie since the 70s — sound engineer, lighting tech, rigger, you name it. I work with him locally when he’s not out on a tour. Fifty-eight years old, he moves on the floor like a man in his 20s — the sort of ground-rigger who never leaves an up-guy hanging (no pun intended.)

Creek floods come suddenly and subside quickly. Within an hour, the water of Seven Mile Creek went from Pops’ backyard to 5′ above his basement floor, bouncing his washing machine against the ceiling.

I arrive at noon. Stacks of furniture, ruined appliances, and boxes of muddied mementos line the road. I find Pops in his basement, dragging the wreckage outside. His wife is spraying mud off of whatever can be salvaged. Pops smiles and tries to crack jokes — he repeats again and again that he and his wife are blessed, no matter what they may have lost — but I can tell his heart is broken.

I find a drawer full of old photos, and start peeling them apart.

“No,” Pops says firmly. “I don’t need it. I’ve moved this shit from place to place for forty years. Why?” He shakes his head. “It’s all going away.”

Pops collected many wonderful artifacts over the years. Tour and Local Crew passes from the 70s through 2010 — name a band, he probably worked for them at least once — are soaked and scattered across the basement floor. There is a Motorola TV from the 1950s, a suitcase phonograph from the 60s, a Caribbean cruise ship mural with tiny photos of Pops’ friends pasted onto the windows, an elaborate toy sailboat that he made for his son — a whole world of memories laying in a soggy pile. I encourage him to save what he can, but he insists on throwing almost everything away. Though it obviously tortures him — he tries not to look as he dumps these things into trashbags — Pops has decided to use this moment to rid his home of needless objects.

“These are just things, Joe. I never do anything with this stuff.”

Yet he’s touching each one of them now. We haul it all to the street, where it is snatched up by immigrants trucking back and forth. I’m fascinated at how quickly Pops’ trash becomes another man’s treasure.

There are some things that I won’t let him throw away, though. A 1981 Sony TCS 310 — the first portable stereo cassette recorder — given to Pops by Johnny Cash’s daughter, Rosanne; a toy truck and race car that date back to the early 50s; and a small roadcase full of tour laminates, particularly a backstage pass for a Willie Nelson concert in Memphis, dated 8/16/77 — the day Elvis Presley died. Apparently Nelson’s performance had been upstaged by the King’s final exit. Pops tells me:

“Willie looked at his tour manager that night, and said: ‘Never book me in Memphis the day Elvis dies again.'”

I refuse to let him throw that case away, and take it outside to dry. Pops’ wife is out there, crying, sorting through the warped remains of her daughter’s artwork and spraying mud off of tiny baby shoes. Broken pieces of a lifetime lay in front of her as she revisits the memories behind. The hardest part is letting them go.

Photo by Rick Prince

Photo: Rick Prince

“We don’t need this stuff,” Pops says, tossing one of his father’s tools into a trashbag without looking. “I can always remember.” He laughs. “Of course, maybe one day my mind will go and I won’t have my memories either.” He shrugs, turning a Christmas ornament over in his hands, staring intently, grinning. He puts it up on a high shelf for safekeeping.

Perhaps nothing lasts forever — perhaps it’s futile to hold on. That seems irrelevant as I consider the simple blessing of going home. And as the cottonwood tufts float down around us, Pops and his wife are profoundly grateful to still have theirs.

* * *

By the evening of May 2, hundreds of Nashville homes are completely submerged — some reports claim thousands across Tennessee. Though this receives almost no national attention, the local news stations show entire neighborhoods immersed to the rooftops. Boats and jet-skis go from house to house rescuing those stranded. The death toll is rising.

Rick Prince — a local firefighter and EMS First Responder — has spent the day saving what little he could from homes in West Nashville and Bellevue, artwork and furniture that was spared due to its elevated location. Most of the homes he went into were completely ruined.

When Rick arrived at his friend’s house on Pond Creek near Ashland City, it was too late. “I looked across the rapids [where her home used to be] and saw only the tops of the tallest trees swaying against the river’s current.” Like many residents who have lost everything, she had no flood insurance. The material accumulation of entire lives have been swept away in a flash.

Rick tells me that it was hard to distinguish between curious disaster-tourists and looters casing the scene. One can only make assumptions with strangers, but when “ruffians” scope out unguarded merchandise rather than offering help or taking pictures, suspicions arise. He describes the walls of Rent-A-Center and Budget Brakes in West Nashville left pounded out by debris and the sheer weight of the rushing water, giving open access. At this point, no one has reported any looting yet.

“That makes me proud of the collective ‘us’ of Nashville,” Rick says. “However, it only takes a little more ‘need’ to push any man or woman to make that decision and choose self-preservation. And there is a fine line between need and want. Go team.”

* * *

May 3 — I listen to sirens and helicopters all night. Police have been assigned to various posts all over the city — in some instances to hold back the rubberneckers, but also to curtail looting. One officer — who was in New Orleans for four months after the hurricane — says it reminds him of Katrina. You mean all the gawkers? I ask.

“No, the looting. It started tonight, mostly in West and South Nashville. Not as bad as New Orleans, of course, but it will probably get worse. That’s just human nature, I guess. People will always prey on the weak.”

The apple never falls far from the tree — Nature consistently shows herself to be a cruel mother. Floods, tornados, earthquakes, tsunamis, disease, old age, and death. As people swarm in to gather photographs or rip out unguarded valuables, a dark pit inside the human heart yawns wide as the ravenous jaws of Nature, devouring without empathy. And yet, just as Nature sends sunshine down upon us, so the best of her children relieve their brothers and sisters after crippling misfortune. The gentle hand is divine.

Perhaps the officer’s comparison to Katrina is only superficial.  Thusfar Nashville has shown a gentle hand indeed.  The looting is  only a fraction of that in New Orleans.   The volunteer lists are completely full as many thousands of determined Nashvillians come to the aid of their neighbors — with little outside help.  One could point to Music City’s economic advantages or the scale of disaster as an explanation.

I think of the memorial in front of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in East Nashville. Written after the tornadoes of ’98 destroyed the neighborhood, the inscription reads:

“God was not in the tornado, but in our response.”

An apt sentiment, but it ignores part of the story. It seems apparent that God is more than willing to smash human lives to pieces. For this, the boldest men and women curse him. And yet, he has also given survivors the power to put what is left back together—perhaps upon a stronger foundation. For this, the humble thank him, straining against the fierce current and keeping faith that we will arrive on that distant shore.

[This article was submitted to various national news organizations on May 5. The Gulf oil spill, the twarted carbombing in NYC, and the rape of a child prostitute by Lawrence Taylor were deemed to be much more important.  As usual, Tennessee exists in its own little world, apart from all others.]

Joe Allen

Joe Allen is a writer and fellow primate who wonders why we came down from the trees. A lifelong student of religion and science, he's also kept his hands dirty as a land surveyor, communal farm hand, kitchen servant, and for over a decade, by climbing steel as an entertainment rigger. His work appears in various outlets from left to right because he prefers liberty to security.

Daily interjections: @EvoPsychosis

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19 Comments on "Beneath the Surface: Nashville’s Flood of 2010"

  1. justagirl | May 11, 2010 at 9:31 am |

    wow! great writing!
    maybe the media has been ignoring the flood because nashville is taking care of itself. it's hard to imagine “looters” in tennessee. i bet 80% of the residents are packin' heat… and fragile.

    • You're actually very wrong. I live in Madison, which is a part of Metropolitan Nashville. While the local news was reporting on downtown Nashville and the richer neighborhoods, here in Madison there was a mobile home park that was flooded. The residents called the local news channels time and time again and they were ignored. The water got so deep from the Cumberland that entire mobile homes were underwater.

      Not one news report was made on the area until after the water began to recede. The community put in phone calls for help to the Red Cross, which were left unanswered until the mobile home park threatened to go public with the the fact that they were being ignored. After that the Red Cross did show up, but they did not offer help when they first arrived. I was helping out in the community in question when they first arrived. They did not stop to ask if there were any immediate supplies needed, they did not even acknowledge that there were people swimming in water contaminated with raw sewage, gasoline, oil, etc attempting to get out just a few more of their possessions. And after they drove in and drove out it still took the Red Cross until the next day to return with some bottled water.

      The people of the community I speak of, Old Hickory Mobile Estates, had to pull together in order to survive. The first people to offer aid outside of the community were local churches and the Metro Police Department. The police volunteered to patrol this neighborhood off of the clock from what I understand. But even at this rate the looting was unbelievable. Everyone expected that if there were going to be looters then they would come by land, instead they were caught using a boat to come into the flooded areas and break into these homes.

      Then when the rain stopped this community suffered another blow. The homes that were not flooded, which I believe was around 61, found themselves without electricity. Phone calls placed to the Nashville Electric Service were met with, “We are having to ship in a part because the transformers are so old, we do not know how long you will be without service.” By the second day anyone from this community I speak of whom called the Nashville Electric Service was met with the response of, “We do not have an update to give you, stop calling.” Meanwhile, the local news agencies were reporting proudly of how the Nashville Electric Service had restored electricity to three buildings in Nashville.

      In short, Nashville proudly proved that the power of the all mighty dollar defined people here more than the fact that everyone whom was in this disaster lost everything. The news channels never bothered to report on the looting, nor on how certain services thought to be essential to disaster relief ignored the lower class areas. If they did then they would also have to admit that they did the exact same.

      By the by, there are actually less residents in Tennessee carrying a firearm legally than what you think. For example, the mobile home park I was involved with helping immediately when people started to loose their homes has enough lots for a little over 200 mobile homes, and out of all of the residents that live there not a one had a permit to carry a handgun legally.

      • justagirl | May 11, 2010 at 10:37 am |

        well, it appears the word on the neglect is out now. why did the red cross go out there to do nothing? it doesn't make sense to me. my mother is from tennessee. i have family out there in the sticks somewhere. maybe you helped out some of my distant relatives or their friends. that's real nice of you. i hope everything gets cleaned up soon. disaster seems to be happening all over the place. by the way, i didn't say legal arms.

        • Hadrian999 | May 11, 2010 at 6:02 pm |

          when a problem is bigger than the available resources you have to triage,
          trailer parks will always be a low priority for…pretty much anything.
          first off if you don't have a go bag make one, waiting on help from the government or hoping for the best is a sucker's bet.

          • Unfortunately, you are so right with your comment. I seen the response efforts first hand, and now seeing the efforts of the government through Fema due to my sister-in-law living in the mobile home park I mentioned. Her family did lose everything, which is a different type of disaster story all together. They were suckered by a fly by night Realtor to move into a large house before the economy crashed. Her husband got laid off, unemployment wasn't enough to cover the bills. They had absolutely no savings due to taking the house, so they had to walk away from it. They decided to go with something cheaper, hence the mobile home until they got back on their feet.

            Basically, they went from being upper middle class right to the bottom of the food chain. So, without question their story proves that it is much easier to lose everything than most people imagine. Prepare the best you can for the worst and just hope that you never need it.

          • Why is it always the low income families that feel they got nothing??? I worked for two weeks straight in Bellevue, they lost everything, and most got nothing in return. Katrina's ass…You can't compare a huricane bearing down (with FIVE days of advance notice) to a flash flood event like this…there was no notice in Tennessee, and just like in life, there's no notice when you wake up one day and realize that your entire life has been spent waiting for someone to “bail you out” of your problems…well, they wont, and they never will. There is no one to blame but yourself if you failed to get an education, failed to have enough of a back up plan to save your own ass, failed to act when you had the chance. If you asked me, those of you living in East Nashville should be gratefull to have not been killed by hundreds of other things that you deal with on a daily basis; gang bangers, drive by's, and crack head losers…the two day flood has nothing on this type of daily, year end, year out assault. Kudos to those of you who can put up with it…me? You cant even pay me to cross that river anymore. As I told my ex (who owns a home in E-Nash)…You could GIVE me a house, rent free, tax free…I'm not leaving the West End…not even if I was paid to.

      • Word Eater | May 11, 2010 at 3:16 pm |

        It was the same for New Orleans. The lower class folks were ignored while high profile targets were saved.

        Capitalism at its worst.

      • Tuna Ghost | May 13, 2010 at 12:14 am |

        Holy shit, I went to middle and high school in Madison. Sucks to hear about this.

      • First, let me ask where or who you recieved your information from? Because the majority of your facts are wrong.

        I live in Old Hickory Estates, in Madison, TN. My home became the central location for everyone needing assistance with this horrible event. You have to understand that we LOST 54 HOMES, out of 306. Bellevue was completely lost. The comparison is apple and oranges. Although it does not make our loss any less, we do understand. You also need to understand that there is not a warehouse full of emergency response people waiting for disaster to strike. And since this is the first time this has happened, it is amazing how EVERYONE has pulled together. We have been blessed with beautiful neighbors in our community who pulled together. But let me tell the REAL STORY, because I'm part of it, and I KNOW what happened.

        Yes, the first day the RedCross only came in to test the water. But after I made a phone call to the right person, Christian (a RedCross Vol) came in, left and immediatly returned with all the supplies he could get his hands on. While I was making phone calls, and get my home ready to receive donations, the manager, her daughter and I were getting a mobile office set up in my front yard. Neighbors started trickling in with donations. By Tuesday afternoon, I had the RedCross in here on a regular basis, along with the Salvation Army. I was communicating with the RedCross so much, that Chrisitan came out after he got off duty with another load of supplies in his personal vehicle. By last Thursday, the teachers from Neely's Bend Elem. School had came in, they threw a bbq for everyone in my yard, and have been our biggest supporters. The RedCross, the Salvation army, Neely's Bend Church of Christ, Living to Go Church have been amazing and constantly bring supplies in. No one in our community has went without anything that is essential. Dr. Kellogg from Neelys Bend Elem. School has an outreach and I can call her and get anything my nieghbors need. My husband and I, along with my mother,Janet the park Manager, the Maintance man, his wife and daughter, the asst manger and her husband and their son, the managers daughter and the list goes on, has not slept nor rested to ensure that everyone is being taking care. Everyone has put their personal lives on hold and will continue to do so with no thanks needed. Along with all the outside volunteers and agencies. No one is looking for “thanks you's”.

        DO NOT MAKE US OUT TO BE VICTIMS for something that we are not. We do not want anyone to say “oh, they live in the trailer park, they need extra attention because we are poor”. Simply put, we have an above average income level. We are strong, smart, and brave and don't need anyone to feel sorry for us. Also, the hand gun permit comment. Please tell me, did you go door to door taking a survey? Because, I belive that your facts are way off with that. I know you didn't come to my door or talk to me or my husband.

        Let me address metro police. They are amazing as well. But not one of them worked off duty. Due to the fact that EVERY METRO POLICE OFFICER WAS REQUIRED TO WORK 12HR SHIFTS WITH NO DAYS OFF TILL FURTHER NOTICE.Trust on this, because I've spent countless hours talking to them about the everything that is going on. We have had NO LOOTING, BECAUSE OF METRO POLICE AND BECAUSE OUR NEIGHBORS ARE LOOKING OUT FOR EACH OTHER.

        So what the news didn't cover us!! But they did, after a few days, there are only so many reporters to go around. But we are not feeling sorry for ourselves, so you shouldn't either. The only thing you were correct about was the part NES had to order. But no one told us to stop calling, trust me, I've spoken to every flood victim, either giving them supplies, through translators, or handling all the paperwork. I would know. Let me point out, that NES and Metro Water employees have been working 18 hour days. Could you handle it?

        If you want to get your facts and have your questions answered, please come talk to me, anyone can tell you where I'm at, because I'm here, along with countless other people, who can tell you what is really going on.

  2. Word Eater | May 11, 2010 at 3:13 pm |

    As a native Memphian who has spent a few Christmases in Nashville, I feel a kinship with this disaster.

    Thanks for telling your story from ground zero and putting a human face on what seems, to so many, to be an anonymous act of nature.

    I believe the number I heard was $1.8billion to recover from this.

  3. When the media did cover the floods, it usually just focused on the Titans stadium.

  4. Is there really such a thing as disaster tourism?

  5. Tuna Ghost | May 13, 2010 at 1:14 am |

    Holy shit, I went to middle and high school in Madison. Sucks to hear about this.

  6. God is judging Nashville for all the crappy music it unleashed on the World. God will not be mocked!

    • Some god you serve pal…the God that I know has alot more mercy and compassion than your's. Why is Vega's, L.A. or New York still standing?

  7. Kanye West doesn't care about white people.

  8. I live 1.5 hours from nashville and visit there often. I'm shocked at how little national media attention this story has received. My employer, GE rented a trailer truck and everyone where I work, 800+ employees, filled it up the first day with supplies. I myself did not go down to nashville as there really wasn't anything I could do other than snap pictures and get in the way.
    But, this needs to go down as a lesson to every single person. You need to prepare yourself for disasters. Make a Bug out bag, co-ordinate with friends, family, neighbors. Know where to go when emergencies strike. Know you and your wife and children personal information. Do not depend on the government or the kindness of strangers. A little preparedness beforehand will help you and yours immensely.

  9. Why is it always the low income families that feel they got nothing??? I worked for two weeks straight in Bellevue, they lost everything, and most got nothing in return. Katrina’s ass…You can’t compare a huricane bearing down (with FIVE days of advance notice) to a flash flood event like this…there was no notice in Tennessee, and just like in life, there’s no notice when you wake up one day and realize that your entire life has been spent waiting for someone to “bail you out” of your problems…well, they wont, and they never will. There is no one to blame but yourself if you failed to get an education, failed to have enough of a back up plan to save your own ass, failed to act when you had the chance. If you asked me, those of you living in East Nashville should be gratefull to have not been killed by hundreds of other things that you deal with on a daily basis; gang bangers, drive by’s, and crack head losers…the two day flood has nothing on this type of daily, year end, year out assault. Kudos to those of you who can put up with it…me? You cant even pay me to cross that river anymore. As I told my ex (who owns a home in E-Nash)…You could GIVE me a house, rent free, tax free…I’m not leaving the West End…not even if I was paid to.

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