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Is Nashville ready for the next flood?

12:12 PM, May 1, 2013   |    comments
Opry Mills Mall with Gaylord Opryland in the background from the sky, Monday afternoon May 3, 2010. Tennessean
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By Michael Cass | The Tennessean

The rain was falling hard and fast, hour after hour, soaking marathon runners, fans and anyone else who stepped outside. It was a weekend, and April was about to give way to May.

And, perhaps spookiest of all, Jimmy Buffett was set to play a Saturday night concert downtown, just as he had three years earlier.

While last weekend's 3.5-inch downpour didn't approach the 13 inches of May 1-2, 2010, it did make many people nervous. But as Nashville and Middle Tennessee begin to mark the third anniversary of a flood that took 26 lives, caused some $2.4 billion in property damage across the region and temporarily waylaid the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Grand Ole Opry House, Opry Mills Mall and Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, Mayor Karl Dean and other officials say they're better prepared now.

See The Tennessean's special coverage of the Nashville Flood

Yet at least three more years probably will pass before Nashville and the federal government even know how they might finish the job of better protecting citizens and buildings from massive flooding.

Nashville was mostly spared this past weekend, but significant damage was done in the region, most notably in Stewart County. And while government officials can point to tangible progress in protecting citizens, they still have a long way to go.

Metro and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers haven't even started a feasibility study to determine the best big-picture approaches to reducing flood damage along the Cumberland River, such as new levees and flood walls. Metro has set aside $1.1 million and has encouraged the Corps to accelerate the process. Such studies typically take three years, and the Corps' matching funds haven't come through yet, Metro Water Services Director Scott Potter said.

But Nashville has already taken important steps to shore up its flood response efforts. The people working in Metro's emergency operations "war room" have a lot more information than they used to. So does the public.

"At least as far as I can see, no one reacts to a major rain event the way they did before," Dean said Monday. "The memory of 2010 is always there. We need to be moving forward and trying to find ways to keep the city safe. The odds are it doesn't happen (again). But there's still that possibility."

When the feasibility study is completed, Metro will know what its best options are for larger flood mitigation initiatives, Potter said. A federally funded "reconnaissance study" that the city published in January mentions alternatives ranging from floodproofing and property buyouts -- an approach the city has already used -- to river and stream channel modifications. But Potter said it's too early to speculate on what might work best.

"It's all wide open at this point," he said.

Whatever the study recommends, the Corps probably will be Metro's primary financial partner in building any projects. In a prepared statement, the Corps said it has worked closely with Metro and other state and local agencies over the past three years.

"These efforts have greatly improved our ability to identify hazard areas, communicate dangers to the public and provide emergency response teams with information needed to prioritize their actions during a flood event," said Mike Wilson, Nashville District deputy for programs and project management.

Metro, the Corps and government agencies from Williamson and other counties are in the very early stages of a similar study of the Harpeth River, and Corps funding for a review of Mill Creek was finalized on Monday, Potter said.

Better mapping tools

At 3 a.m. Sunday, after 2 more inches of rain fell in two hours, Roger Lindsey of Metro Water Services was sitting near a Metro Police representative in the Emergency Operations Center on a hill above Belmont University.

Police had received a call about flooding on West Hamilton Avenue in Bordeaux, so the official asked Lindsey, "What do you see?" Using SAFE (Situational Awareness for Flooding Events), a sophisticated mapping and real-time data tool the city developed after the 2010 flood, Lindsey was able to confirm flash flooding.

Officers were quickly dispatched to the area to talk to residents, said Tom Palko of Metro Water Services. Police also knocked on doors near Mill Creek in South Nashville, where the creek was 5 feet deeper on Culbertson Road than it had been 12 hours earlier.

"We have better information about what's going on, particularly with our creeks and tributaries, and we have the ability to do evacuations and give warnings that we did not have before 2010," Dean said.

Metro also has developed an online tool the public can use called NERVE, or Nashville Emergency Response Viewing Engine.

Available at maps.nashville.gov/nerve and on mobile apps, NERVE shows which roads are closed, where emergency shelters are open, where water and food distribution centers are located. Users also can map a route that avoids any closed roads to the nearest shelter.

Councilman Bo Mitchell, who has represented part of Bellevue since 2007, said he knows how high the Harpeth has to get to be dangerous and which houses would be the first in his district to get flooded.

"It's sad when you know those figures better than you know some budget numbers," he said.

Kara Stephens, who had to flee her Pennington Bend home three years ago, said she feels better now than she did then about the city's and the Corps of Engineers' ability to handle flooding. She and many others blame the Corps for waiting too long to release floodwater from the Old Hickory Dam, though a judge dismissed lawsuits by several companies in February.

Stephens said she was "a little on edge" about Saturday's weather.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't have nightmares over the weekend," she said. "The fear is still in the back of my head just from having gone through it. But I don't think the city or the Army Corps would react as poorly as they did."

Dean said he couldn't help but think about 2010 as the creeks kept rising on Saturday.

Jimmy Buffett's concert at Bridgestone Arena, where the singer also performed on May 1, 2010, didn't help.

"We ought to get him to come in early August," Dean said, "when it's drought conditions."

Reach Michael Cass at 615-259-8838.

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