Before the swollen Cumberland River poured over the flood wall next to the Gaylord Opryland Resort, Colin Reed evacuated the property, moving guests to a school for shelter.
“At 10 p.m. that evening, there was six feet of water in the lobby of this hotel,” Gaylord’s president and chief executive said Friday of the May 2010 flood that caught Nashville off guard. Worse than forecasts predicted, the flood hit downtown businesses and outlying residential communities, causing $2 billion in damages.
“You could have heard a pin drop in that room,” Reed said of the moment his guests learned the hotel had flooded. “They realized that if they had stayed in that hotel, there was a lot of people whose lives would have been at risk that day. The next day, it was all about remediation.”
Now, Reed and other Nashvillians are having flashbacks in the wake of news of the historic flooding that struck South Carolina last weekend, killing more than a dozen and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.
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Five years after Nashville’s flood, Reed and others also are recalling the strategies they say helped speed their city’s recovery.
▪ A home buyout program converted flood-prone areas into parks, aiding flood victims. The city moved quickly to ban new construction in those areas.
▪ The city helped businesses reopen, including fast-tracking building permits for commercial and residential properties.
▪ Charitable giving — including benefit concerts by country-music stars — spurred the city’s recovery.
But Nashvillians also advise South Carolina’s recovery will take years, be costly and be much debated, as state and local leaders seek ways to avoid similar disasters.
“I feel like South Carolina is worse than Tennessee,” said Ralph Schulz, president and chief executive officer of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, adding the water flowing downstream from Columbia has created a larger area affected by the flood.
“In the next few weeks, everyone is going to be in emergency mode,” Schulz said. “There will be a lot of interest in being helpful and in the community binding together to meet the immediate needs.
“But a flood recovery takes a year or two.”
There will be a lot of interest in being helpful and in the community binding together to meet the immediate needs. But a flood recovery takes a year or two.
– Ralph Schulz, Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce
Flood-prone areas become parks
In response to the flood, Nashville banned new commercial and residential development in areas highly prone to flooding. Those areas are closest to the water and, therefore, most susceptible to the most dangerous, fastest moving floodwaters.
The city also placed limits on property owners who wanted to rebuild in floodways. The new structure could not exceed its original size, and the first inhabitable level had to be four feet higher than federal flood standards.
City leaders say a home-buyout program was a huge help to flood victims. It also transformed flood-prone areas into green spaces.
A presidential disaster declaration gave the city access to federal money to help it buy homes destroyed by the flood, said Roger Lindsey, a Nashville floodplain administrator. The city was able to buy more than 200 homes from residents who agreed to sell, he said. In some cases, the city bought entire streets and converted them to parks.
The city was able to pay flood victims the value of their homes before the flood. In exchange for the federal aid, the city agreed to convert flood-prone properties into green space and never sell it for development.
Removing homes from the floodway was a top priority, but the city also wanted to act quickly, Lindsey said. “People were losing their homes back to the mortgage company because they’re living paycheck to paycheck, trying to rent a place to live and, at the same time, trying to keep a mortgage current.
People were losing their homes back to the mortgage company because they're living paycheck to paycheck, trying to rent a place to live and, at the same time, trying to keep a mortgage current.
– Roger Lindsey, Nashville floodplain administrator
“The faster you can make those offers to those homeowners, the faster they can get on with selling their home” and find relief, he said.
Build for bigger storms
Converting flood-damaged properties to parks was smart planning, experts say.
Parks absorb rainwater, reducing the amount of stormwater that causes flooding, said Janey Camp, a Vanderbilt University research professor in civil engineering.
But as Nashville and South Carolina continue to grow, so will their flood risks if developers do not offset new parking lots, roads and other impervious surfaces with green space, she said.
Craig Philip, a Vanderbilt civil and environmental engineer, said developers should — but often do not — consider how new construction will affect existing infrastructure, including dams and levees. Older structures might not be able to withstand higher water levels caused by increased stormwater runoff from newer development.
Deciding whether to move infrastructure after a flood also presents a challenge.
While a water treatment plant and wastewater plant were completely submerged in the flood, Nashville did not move them. Both needed to remain near the river. But the city did move pump stations and electrical systems that drive the plants to higher ground to make restoring the plants faster if they are flooded again.
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, Nashville’s Democratic congressman, said cities rebuilding after floods can make smarter choices. Burying unsightly power lines, for example, is more “cosmetic,” but leads to trouble when flood waters seep underground, compromising power.
Cooper also said Nashville and other communities are in denial about the impact climate change is having on weather. “We’re largely in denial about extreme weather, in denial about proximity to flood plains. We’re in major denial about how soon it can happen again.”
Vanderbilt’s Camp said the storms that hit Nashville and South Carolina are becoming more common, but they often seem like “rare events.”
But, she added, “Whether people believe in climate change or not, if you look historically, we’re starting to see different storm types. That’s what happened in Nashville.”
Help businesses reopen, families rebuild
Helping businesses reopen and fast-tracking building permits for commercial and residential properties helped Nashville’s recovery, local leaders say.
After a flood, “most businesses that don’t re-open or can’t get up to operation within two weeks, those businesses were going to fail,” said Schulz of the Nashville chamber.
The Nashville flood caused $2 billion in damages to private commercial and residential property, Schulz said. Of about 2,700 businesses affected by the storm, 300 went out of business, taking with them about 1,500 jobs.
Schulz credits a swift response by city and business leaders with helping most businesses get what they needed to stay open — “whether it was a demolition permit or whether it was a list of available office space.”
Companies unaffected by the storm also offered some of their space to competitors to try to keep businesses in operation — a business-matching program the chamber helped facilitate, Schulz said.
Right after the flood, Nashville’s mayor also created a flood recovery office to help residents and businesses find the help they needed, said Talia Lomax-O’dneal with the city’s finance office. The office operated at full capacity for about two years.
Nashville’s disaster preparation, a priority of the former mayor, also helped the city’s recovery effort.
The city designated the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee to accept donations from people who wanted to give but did not have any specific organization or cause in mind.
When the flood hit, a network of charities launched into action, sure of each organization’s role, said Ellen Lehman, the Community Foundation’s president.
“The division of labor was vitally important,” Lehman said. “Had we had to focus on volunteer efforts and raising money, we would have done both things badly.”
‘Emerge a stronger place’
Despite those successes, Nashville struggles today to find consensus on how best to prevent more flooding.
Nashville’s former mayor wanted to build a $100 million flood wall to protect the downtown business district should the Cumberland flood again. But city council rejected that proposal by one vote.
In an open letter to the former mayor, a councilman representing the Bordeaux neighborhood — an impoverished area hard hit by the flood — said some communities have not recovered as swiftly as downtown.
“(T)his part of the city deserves the same protection as the businesses in the downtown corridor,” the councilman wrote, adding “many areas (of his district) have been left unchanged and remain vulnerable to natural disasters” after the flood.
Reed, who runs the Opryland properties, said the proposed downtown floodwall “failed because ... the council wanted to see a plan that was far more comprehensive,” one that would help other parts of the city.
Adding he is confident Nashville will come up with a plan, Reed also gave some advice to South Carolina: “When you’re in the middle of it, people are losing their lives. Homes are being destroyed. Businesses are being destroyed. It seems extremely dark.
“But if you handle it well ... South Carolina can emerge a stronger place.”
When you're in the middle of it, people are losing their lives. Homes are being destroyed. Businesses are being destroyed. It seems extremely dark. But if you handle it well ... South Carolina can emerge a stronger place.
– Colin Reed, president and CEO of Ryman Hospitality Properties
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Learning from Nashville
Advice for S.C. from the Middle Tennessee city hit hard by flooding in 2010:
Convert flood-prone areas to green space. Banning future development in flood zones and creating green space in destroyed areas will help reduce future flooding and the need for first responders to rescue residents.
Help businesses, residents rebuild quickly. Getting water and power services back on, clearing debris and expediting building permits should be top priorities.
Rebuild for bigger storms. Look to cities that have fared well for tips on the best stormwater systems. Do not underestimate the intensity of future coming storms.
Plan ahead for another flood. Disaster planning and agreements detailing the roles organizations will play after a disaster will jump-start recovery.