The Tennessee deluge of 2010: Nashville’s ‘Katrina’ and the dawn of the superflood

One of the epic extreme weather events in U.S. recorded history devastated one of America’s great cities this month.   But the status quo media has barely told the story of Nashville’s Katrina (let alone its link to human-caused climate change).

Since the great Tennessee deluge of 2010 foreshadows the shape of things to come for many of the world’s great cities if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path, I’m going to begin a multipart series on it.  Uber-meteorologist Dr. Jeff Masters and I have already touched on the link to warming already (see AP: Calling deadly Tennessee superstorm an “unprecedented rain event” did “not capture the magnitude”), and I’ll have more scientific analysis on that next week.  What follows is some straightforward — but stunning — reporting on the disaster by guest blogger Eric Normand, a Tennessee-based writer and musician.

The rain began falling on the morning of Saturday, May 1st, 2010, and by the time it finished, approximately 36 hours later; it had dumped a record rainfall of between 12 and 20 inches across Middle and Western Tennessee, devastating 52 of Tennessee’s 95 counties. Rivers that normally spanned 100 feet across swelled to a half-mile or more, flooding cities, towns, and roadways, washing away homes and bridges, destroying businesses and infrastructure, and leaving thousands homeless. At least 33 people died across Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky; some while trapped in cars on flooding interstates, others who were swept away from flooding homes by the raging waters, while thousands more were left stranded in remote communities without power or communication for days. Water plants were decimated, the Grand Ole’ Opry and many other historic buildings and icons damaged or destroyed, and more than $1.9 billion of damage has been sustained to the private sector in Nashville alone.

And where was our national media in all of this? During the flood, and in the days that followed, mainstream news media like CNN, MSNBC, and Fox, provided minimal coverage of this disaster, a disaster that is likely to be the costliest non-hurricane water related disaster in American history. Our plight was dwarfed by the Gulf oil spill and the New York City car bomber which, while being important stories, were not the only stories. In spite of the American press corps residing under a blanket of ineptitude, all levels of government, combined with an army of volunteers, quickly began to mobilize.

“The President was on the phone to me before the sun came up practically on Monday morning” stated Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen. FEMA administrator Craig Fugate, along with Bredesen and Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, toured flooded areas later in the day. By Tuesday, several counties had been declared federal disaster areas which began to allocate funding for the relief effort (the number of counties declared federal disaster areas would eventually reach 42). By Wednesday, almost 300 members of the Tennessee National Guard were assisting in rescue and relief efforts and the Red Cross was present early on as well.

In the center of this disaster were the people of Tennessee who showed great strength and unity from the onset, when thousands of volunteers showed up at multiple locations; filling sandbags, assisting with boat rescues, and helping with other relief efforts. Community centers and churches across the state became havens for families who lost homes. Schools became water distribution centers. Some citizens even took it upon themselves to rent excavation equipment to clear roads, as the county road crews were overwhelmed. When officials announced the need to conserve water, water usage almost immediately decreased.

While all this was going on, the minimal media depiction was that of a flood that primarily affected Nashville. And while a small percentage of America was hearing about a flood in Music City; 20,000 people in Hickman County, some 50 miles south of the capital, were completely cut off and isolated and without power or communication for almost a week. Much of their community was devastated and many roads and bridges were washed out, with months of repairs still ahead. On Highway 7 in Maury County, an area the size of three football fields collapsed. The city of Clarksville, some 80 miles to the northwest of the capital, was also particularly hard hit, with dozens of small businesses on Riverside Drive under 4 to 5 feet of water. An AT&T call center was flooded, rendering 1400 people out of work indefinitely, and 2 weeks after the disaster, one neighborhood of homes was still under water. In fact this storm system also killed four in Arkansas, and flooded many parts of Mississippi and Kentucky, where it caused statewide damage estimated at more than $30 million. All of this was accompanied by, essentially, no national media coverage to speak of.

This is the worst disaster to hit the state of Tennessee since the Civil War, and all these statistics and facts don’t even begin to paint the picture of the loss and suffering had by many. For some, the disaster will remain a part of their lives for a long time to come. Thousands of damaged or destroyed homes and businesses were not in flood zones, leaving many with mortgages on structures that no longer exist, and without insurance money to rebuild. Thousands have also lost their jobs and livelihoods. Communities and infrastructure have been damaged or destroyed over an area that spans thousands of square miles, with the totality of destruction still yet unknown.

So while the people of Tennessee are rebuilding, most of the nation remains unaware, and most will unlikely ever know the whole story. Tennesseans will survive, rebuild, and emerge from this wreckage, but for many, life will never be the same. Natural disasters affect everybody as we are all interconnected. After Katrina, thousands of hurricane refugees relocated to neighboring states to restart their lives, Tennessee among them, and this catastrophe will inevitably have its own unique set of social and economic impacts that will be far-reaching as well.

Even though I didn’t lose any loved ones or personal property in this flood, what I have lost, is piece of mind. Three weeks after this epic storm, a rainstorm fell in middle Tennessee, causing flood warnings in five counties. While it didn’t cause widespread flooding, it put us all on edge. I used to like rainy days, their once mellow mood almost comforting. Now I fear them. As a nation, we must get our collective heads out of the sand and better understand this world we live in. The absence of this monumental event from our MSM was irresponsible and reckless, leaving us all vulnerable to the next extreme precipitation event. We may not be able to change the weather patterns, but we can at least prepare for what they can do. And if our media could begin to cover all of the pertinent stories in this new dawn of the superflood, we just might stand a chance.

I have put up a slide show that  shows some of the damage in my community. Most of these pictures were taken within 10 miles of my home in Pegram, TN. You can also read more about the flood at my blog.

Guest Blogger Eric Normand is a Tennessee-based writer and musician. Originally from New England, where he attended the Berklee College of Music, he is currently authoring his first book “The Nashville Musician’s Survival Guide.”

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21 Responses to The Tennessee deluge of 2010: Nashville’s ‘Katrina’ and the dawn of the superflood

  1. paulm says:

    Pretty impressive extreme event “Oh My God, this is insane”…

    Hail Storm Oklahoma City

  2. Marie says:

    Here’s hoping that estimates of likelihood of this being caused by climate change can be made, in conjunction with the estimates of infrastructure damage, so that highway agencies and others can begin to calculate and help others to understand the costs of global warming. There is a sad lack of these connections and estimates, to date.

  3. Wit's End says:

    Absolutely, make the link between climate change and record-breaking events. That is the real interconnection between victims of a “natural” disaster and everyone else. Has any significant percentage of Tennesseans understood?

  4. MarkL says:

    Big floods in central Europe this week too…

  5. fj2 says:

    Regarding bad media coverage of important news such as “The Tennessee deluge” and (of course) the accelerating environmental crisis.

    “How to Save the News,” James Fallows, June 2010 Atlantic Magazine

    Slideshow: “A Google-Eye View of the Newspaper Business”

    ” . . . if news organizations stop producing great journalism, says one Google executive, the search engine will no longer have interesting content to link to. So some of the smartest minds at the company are thinking about this, and working with publishers, and peering ahead to see what the future of journalism looks like. Guess what? It’s bright.”

    1. Seems to provide good coverage of the potential future of good coverage from Google by encouraging news reporting that moves away from the pack.

    2. Indicates how the print industry may morph into an electronic news industry with viable business models.

  6. Karen S. says:

    I’ve noticed that when either the media, climate deniers or oil companies don’t want connections made between a disaster and a larger context or pattern (selective news coverage, climate change, predictable oil spills,) that they always use the word “unprecedented.” That word makes the event a big surprise, an act of God. It buys them time and excuses them from the notion that they might have seen it coming. “Unprecedented” = Don’t blame me.

  7. prokaryote says:

    Half a million affected by floods, UN steps in

    “For the past one week, heavy pre-monsoon rainfall, accompanied by strong winds, has caused flash floods that have affected 14 of Sri Lanka’s 25 districts, including the capital, Colombo,” the statement said.

    The feeder bands (stormy peripheral clouds) of the cyclone Laila compounded the impact.

  8. Doug Bostrom says:

    I have no solid grasp of the relative numbers but I’ve got to wonder if the uptick in unemployment this caused was reflected in recent slightly disappointing numbers at the national level. For instance, 1,400 jobs at the call center is after all a measurable fraction in the gross statistics.

  9. paulm says:

    “…Tennessee deluge of 2010 foreshadows the shape of things to come for many of the world’s great cities if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path”

    I am afraid that it does not. Extreme precipitation and flooding seems to be ravishing the world right now. Over the last 18months there, I would say, have been unprecedented flooding where Climate Scientist have predicted.

    Even at this level I think civilization will be humbled as we move forward scince communities will not recover before they experience the next extreme climate driven event. These are going to be occurring on a 2,3,5..10yr cycle. ie 1000yr events every few years!

    This is why I predict the insurance industry is toast in the next 5yrs.

    And this is only with a .8C rise in temp. We are going to hit 3C+ even if we were able to cease CO2 emissions today. Tuck, duck and roll.

  10. mark says:

    Two months ago a friend went to Nashville to further his career as a singer, songwriter, musician.

    The morning of this storm, he woke up in his hotel room, stepped out of bed into two feet of water.

    His car, and all other belongings except his guitar destroyed.

    The car, in the hotel parking lot, was under six feet of water.

    One of the things I wondered about, was, what is the proportion of “skeptics” in Nashville, Tennessee, and the southern USA in general?

    Fairly high is my guess.

    And, I wonder, if any of them will “make the connection”, or continue to believe the people intent on misleading them.

    There is no longer a place you can go to, to escape the effects of climate change.

    There is no longer a safe place.

  11. catman306 says:

    Sounds like your friend needs to write some songs somehow making those connections. Climate change means bad storms and there’s nowhere to hide. Climate change means climate chaos.

    climate is what you expect
    weather is what you get
    climate change is getting the unexpected

  12. Chris Dudley says:

    There are some disaster relief programs for people who don’t have flood insurance. It is not clear how to rewrite the flood insurance rules for mortgages to handle these kinds of situations. Recalibrating the flood maps is going to take some care but it might help.

  13. Whatshisname says:

    “Rain bomb.” I don’t know how old that term is or if it has an official use, but even here in the notorious Flash Flood Alley of Central Texas we’ve begun to hear it too often for comfort the past 10 or 15 years. Mr. Normand’s frightening account of Tennessee’s apparent “Rain Bomb” is a dead-on description of how these types of floods seem to simply overwhelm modern technology’s ability to detect and warn.

    One of these bombs very nearly brought down a large dam near here just a few years back. The potential loss of life alone might well have exceeded Katrina. Tennessee’s Rain Bomb and what we are seeing in Central Texas should be treated as fair warning from Mother Nature.

  14. Steve Bloom says:

    PM says deadly floods are Poland’s worst ever

    Polish authorities say 12 people have been killed and tens of thousands have had to leave their homes in severe flooding caused by torrential rain.

    Polish prime minister Donald Tusk says the flooding is the worst Poland has ever experienced, with several parts of the country underwater.

    (article continues)

  15. fj2 says:

    It would be wise for The President to initiate academic disciplines around the likes of geoscience and geoengineering modeled after medicine and with the same Hippocratic Oath: First do no harm.

    . . . on the scale and urgency of the Manhattan Project and the Space Race to the Moon.

  16. prokaryote says:

    ” . . . on the scale and urgency of the Manhattan Project and the Space Race to the Moon.”


  17. mark says:

    20,000 houses flooded in Azerbaijan

    May 08 2010, 13:00

    Forty districts of Azerbaijan suffer from flooding – the Kura River has left its banks and ruined over 300 houses, drove 2000 houses into the emergency condition, and covered 50,000 hectares of arable land with water.

    Now, the forces and machinery of the Ministry for Emergencies (MfE) are engaged in pumping out water from the dwelling districts of the city of Shirvan, located along the Kura River, and erecting a 500-meter dam, as the Trend reports.

    The river has destroyed the dam in the territory of Shirvan (located in the eastern part of the country) and flooded Bairamly village. Local population is now evacuated, and in the stadium located in the centre of Sabirabad, according to the “News-Azerbaijan”, a tent camp is being deployed for those evacuated from the dangerous area.

  18. PurpleOzone says:

    Unprecedented rain storms began in New Hampshire about 3 years ago, with the “Mother’s Day” rain storm. This March there were 4 huge rain storms, covering much of the lower half of the state. 5″ or 6″ rainfalls are becoming the new norm. Previously a couple of inches was considered heavy.

    Floods in NH used to be from snow melt, or the 38 hurricane.

    Some towns are going to have to rebuild drainage systems or divert rivers if this keeps up.

    But I have to say the 14″ in Tennessee in narrow valleys is even more frightening.

    Fargo, ND, has had repeated floods.

    Too many “once in 100 floods”. More to come.

  19. Crissa says:

    I can only imagine how much worse this could have been in a built up region – with so much of modern cities covered in impermeable concrete and blacktop, many of them are suffering more floods with less rain.

    But more rain… I shudder to think what would happen if that hit in one of the big urban regions.

  20. prokaryote says:

    Across southern China emergency rescue teams were dispatched to help evacuate 685,000 people in result of the flooding. The Ministry of Civil Affairs Web site stated that there is a total of $2.2 billion in damages.

    This month was the beginning of China’s rainy season, which follows the worst drought in a century for some locations in southern China.

    The drought affected 61 million people and left millions without drinking water and 12 million acres barren since last year.

    Guangdong, Sichuan and Zhejiang were among the 13 provinces that were hit by the floods. More than 80,000 homes were damaged and with the numbers staying in the millions, more than 10 million people were affected, reported the State Flood Control and Disaster Relief Headquarters Web site.

  21. prokaryote says:

    Mounting Flood Debris Piles Up

    Metro officials say the piles of flood debris that are scattered throughout the city should be permanently gone by mid-June.

    Public works says it has already cllected more than 32,000 tons of flood debris. The amount at the MetroCenter site will likely double before it’s all gone.