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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.

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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.

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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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