Beneath the Surface – Nashville’s Flood of 2010


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.

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


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.” The vagrants nod in agreement, looking bewildered. “I could make a couple of juicy burgers out of that little guy.” The couple continues 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: 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 has 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.

© 2010 Joseph Allen


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