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Of Hypocrisy and Floods - One Year Later

It's almost been a year since the flood that ravaged Nashville. The flood that so few people heard about. The flood that changed the way we all look at water, rivers, rain, houses.

After the horrors last year, I wrote a few pieces trying to explain our frustration. The piece below is my personal journal of what happened. I had no idea that I was suffering from a mild case of PTSD until Monday of this week, when tornadoes and massive straight line winds blew threw the area, taking down the power lines, and the cell towers. In the dark, alone this time, unable to communicate and find out how everyone else was, I realized yet again what a hypocrite I am. Where was the weather radio, the hand crank battery powered TV, the generator? It took me four hours before I even thought to light a candle. In other words, I panicked. I froze. After the laptop died, I sat with my Nook color, reading Laura Lippman in the dark, my heart pounding in my chest, praying for the lights to come back on and the rain to stop.

I guess I wasn't over the floods after all.

So with that, I'll leave you with the story of what happened last year, with my current notes in bold. Reading this makes me sad all over again, and so, so grateful that we've pulled through. Nashville will never be the same, but we are strong. 

 ***

 

May 14, 2010

I am a hypocrite.

I am a weather junkie. My husband calls me junior meteorologist. I live to watch the Weather Channel. I have four weather sites bookmarked in my Internet toolbar.

So how did I get caught short when one of the biggest natural disasters to hit the United States decided to drop in my backyard?

It started simply enough. Friday, April 30 was my birthday. We went to the symphony. Had elegant seats in one of the Founder’s box. Met the conductor, Giancarlo Geurrero. We had no idea that two days later, the symphony hall would suffer more than 2.5 million dollars in damage. (That figure became $42 million before all was said and done, and the hall didn't reopen until New Year's Eve - 8 months after the flood.)

It began to storm overnight. I woke to thunder and driving rain. We were under a tornado watch. Despite this, a birthday breakfast was in order. We went to my favorite breakfast restaurant in Belle Meade. While we ate, I kept my iPhone app for Weatherbug open and watched the radar. The Flood Warnings started to pour in, four alerts in thirty minutes. I read one of the alerts and saw Memphis has already received 12 inches of rain. We decided to make a grocery run. Stock up. We didn’t think to get ice. We got ham and cheese, sandwich makings. Went home and watched the Weather Channel, read Twitter. Watched the local news. It was raining harder than I’ve ever seen.

The thunder and lightning and rain continue for two days.

The mudline is 30 feet high. Trees are choked with brown goo. It looks like a fungus has uniformly climbed the bushes and fences, like something from the Matrix. 

The insides of people’s houses are on the outside. Pink insulation floats like discarded cotton candy at the curbs. Asphalt has turned to dirt roads, clouds of choking dust following the dump trucks barreling by. Debris, piles and piles of debris, clog the sidewalks and lawns. What haven’t they found?

By Sunday morning we knew we were in trouble. My husband woke me early—the culvert on the other side of our next-door neighbor’s house had become a raging river. We suited up and went to check it, video camera in tow. Trees were down. My neighbor’s driveway was a lake, one of his cars had water up to the door. My husband went under our house, where a rather simple yet sophisticated drainage system is in place because of the natural spring that runs beneath our subdivision. He returned jubilant; the drains were working. We had a fractional amount of standing water under the house. Mind, we’d already gotten ten inches of rain by this time, so that was the best possible news. The fact that we are about three feet higher than our neighbor helped too. Those three little feet made all the difference.

We were watching the radar when the power blew.

I dream of water. Swimming, boating, surfing. Long showers, mud puddles, then raging torrents pulling trees and cars into the current. A doll floats by, then a man’s head. I wake in a sweat.

We checked the phones, thrilled to hear a dial tone. I called my parents, knew they were worried. Hell, at this point, I was worried. It was still raining. Not a drizzle, or a soft patter. It was still coming down in what we like to call a gully washer, thick sheets of rain. I’ve seen it rain like that for an hour and get a flood warning. But two days? 

By Sunday afternoon, the phones were out too. We used Twitter on our cell phones to follow what was happening. Twitter proved to be our hero in all of this, Twitter and local radio host Steve Gill, who broadcast until he was hoarse.

By the afternoon, the cell towers had lost power and we had no way to know what was happening. Total isolation. Junior meteorologist realized she didn’t have the supplies she needs. A generator. Ice. A weather radio. A battery-powered television. A decent radio, period — that’s a fluke, by the way. We just cleaned out our storage area and gave away the televisions that don’t work on a digital signal, and got rid of three battery powered radios. We didn’t think we’d need them, and planned to replace the TV. Sometime. We eventually found a cheap plastic one that would run on batteries and tuned in. Static voices warned that hell had arrived in Bellevue.

We gathered flashlights and candles. Realized we were low on batteries too.

The water was still rising. In the end, we had 17 inches of rain and the rivers crested over 25 feet above flood stage.

There is nothing eerier than being in a storm with no power. You are surrounded by a penetrating darkness that bleeds into your skin. Lightning is your only illumination, and it comes in brief, strobe-like bursts. The sound of rain becomes white noise, like crickets and cicadas in summer, a commotion you expect to hear.

At 7:00 p.m., knowing it wasn’t a good idea, we made the hard decision to leave the house. At the very least, we could find out what was happening firsthand.

And suddenly, the rain stopped. The silence was overwhelmingly loud.

We drove out and saw unbelievable amounts of brown, dead water. Realized that this was ten times worse than we could have ever imagined. Houses, neighborhoods, roads, all underwater. We heard there were water rescues going on less than a mile from us. The water was up to the stop lights. Not the stop signs, the stop lights. The roads into our part of the county were all closed, either washed out of blocked by mudslides and trees. We were literally an island.

We went to high ground by the Natchez Trace to make cell calls and let our folks know we’re still okay but unreachable at home. I gave thanks for my iPhone as it downloaded a few important emails that I was waiting on.

Publix was open, God bless them. They know how to handle a disaster from years of working in hurricane zones. That’s what this felt like, a hurricane’s aftermath. We stocked up on a few things that we needed. Oranges. Soup. Things we could cook on the grill that could stay on the counter. Water. Batteries. We only took what we needed, a few of each, so there was enough to go around. Hoarding would not do.

We hatched a grand plan to rescue the open package of hot dogs from the refrigerator, along with my birthday cake and a half-drunk bottle of wine.

It started to rain again. We cooked under umbrellas, realized we were low on propane. When will our shortcomings as survivors end? My friend Zoë Sharp wrote an essay called “Four Meals From Anarchy” which detailed how the world would fall apart without basic conveniences. I realize I’m living her thesis.

We ventured out again late Monday afternoon. Word was the road to the highway was open. It was. We went two exits up the highway, and it was another world. No mud. No standing water. People at Target and Best Buy. We bought chargers for the car so we could power the laptops. Ate at McDonalds. The woman behind the counter looked at me and said, “Oh my God, where did you come from? You look exhausted.” I suppose I did. And my house was still standing. I had no right to be exhausted. I accepted the free cheeseburger anyway.

I got to work on my manuscript by hand and quickly realized my mind doesn't work that way anymore. I am so in tune with my keyboard that the words don’t flow out of my pen correctly. A strange realization: I am utterly dependent on electronics. This is sad. I chang tactics and outline the remainder of the book. That works.

Tuesday night, as we were wrapping a cul-de-sac block party (one of our neighbors has a generator, so there was fresh food and lots of cheer) the power came back on. We’d all retreated into our individual darkness, candles were lit. I was just settling in to read and CRACK! the lights blared to life. What did we do? All of us, the whole street, ran outside, whooping and hollering. Back into the dark, to which we’d become so accustomed. The inky night greeted us, but the brilliant display of stars faded to pinpricks. The sky became small again.

Still no phones or cell, but sweet, blessed power.

We were saved.

I’m betting there will be a whole lot of babies born in January named Noah.

 

   ***

 

There will be rain tonight. And while the thought strikes fear in me, knowing that the storms will pass through at 40 miles an hour is heartening. It is temporary. I may park the truck in the driveway to let the rain wash away the mud caked on it from trying to drive around in the muck to get supplies.

Irony abounds. Take the sad story of the man from White’s Creek who has spent years advocating for his neighborhood because he was worried about the houses being flooded, who was turned down by the city time and again, swept away by the flood waters as he tried to save his house from the rising tide, found drowned in a field upstream. Our police chief, leaving in the middle of the crisis to take the police chief position in New Orleans. He leaves this week, practically before the body counts are finalized. Honestly? Good damn riddance. His manipulation of the crime figures to make it seem like crime has diminished are just one problem the new chief will have to undo. Morale in the rank and file has been dismal: the cops I’ve talked to, the very ones patrolling our neighborhoods and dragging bodies from cars, are giddy with relief.  Serpas even had a subconscious slip during his press conference, when he said his main concern wasn’t Nashville at this time. No kidding, chief. Sayonara.

We had so few reports of crime. Instead, all was turned upside down. Our inmate population saved the water supply for Davidson County. They, rightly so, busted their butts, sandbagging. In a true crisis, there comes a time when everything is transcended—class, race, desire, greed. All of that is supplanted with a yearning for survival. New York saw it during 9-11. Sadly, New Orleans didn’t see it the way they should have, as government agencies sniped and the Mayor of that city declined help. In a crisis of this magnitude, you need your infrastructure to work seamlessly. Nashville’s did.

There are stories of hope and darkness. The former head coach of the Vanderbilt Commodores was rescued from waist deep water in his River Plantation home by his ingenious son and a photographer from The Tennessean. Coach has MS. He’s confined to a hospital bed. They finally realized his mattress was inflatable and floated him out the front door on a raft, saving his life.

Can you imagine what it must feel like, strapped to a bed, unable to save yourself, watching the water rise, lying in the brown murk of the flood. Knowing that you’ve only got an hour left at most? Begging your wife to leave, to save herself, and knowing it’s too late, she’s too frail, there’s no way she could escape, she’d be swept away. Feeling your body begin to float.

Five days in and the power still flickers off and on. All but two of the bodies have been found. (The last victim, Danny Tomlinson, 39, a man almost everyone in Nashville has some connection to - he went to my gym, is friends with my friends, etc., - was found September 27, less than one mile from my house. He'd been there all that time...) The sense of community is unrelenting—I was greeting with hugs at the grocery store. The ones with no damage to their life and property are suffering survivor's guilt. The donations are being turned away, there are too many volunteers. How is that possible? Too many volunteers and donations? Unheard of.

But this is the south. That’s what we do.

We are Nashville.

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Your piece reminds me of times when I was a kid

seeng the Mississippi or Missouri Rivers crowd their banks near St. Louis, watching great trees being swept down toward New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico, easily able to rip open and sink a riverboat. I hadn't seen an ocean yet, but when I eventually did even the power of the ocean seemed secondary to that of an onrushing, flooding river.