The rain has finally stopped falling, the floodwaters have receded in Nashville and the long road to recovery begins. In the wake of the worst natural disaster in modern Middle Tennessee history, 23 people are dead and thousands of area residents remain displaced. 

For days, the floods swallowed area neighborhoods, knocked out electricity and surrounded downtown landmarks such as the Country Music Hall of Fame. Only one of Nashville’s two water treatment facilities remained in service, placing residents under a mandatory order to cut their water usage by half. Mayor Karl Dean has said that the property damage in Nashville alone will exceed $1.5 billion.

‘Music will play on’ 

With so much destruction in the area and so many lives turned upside down, many in Nashville wonder why the national media has been largely absent in covering the flood story. When CNN’s Anderson Cooper finally broadcast live from Nashville on May 6, he apologized for the lack of attention he and other reporters have given to the city in the wake of the floods. 

A number of factors came together to create an “invisible city,” during the floods, said Sybril Bennett, associate professor of journalism at Belmont University in Nashville. 

Being in the South, generally off the radar of big media outlets based in New York, Washington and Chicago, the Nashville disaster happened suddenly on a weekend when reporters were preoccupied with other big news stories like the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the attempted Times Square bombing. Also, she said, “people helped people. There wasn’t a real conflict or fight about resources. The governor and mayor worked together.” 

“I don’t think the lack of coverage was intentional,” Bennett said. But it was unfortunate, she said, because people across the country should be informed that Nashville needs help to rebuild during the months ahead. 

More national media attention is also essential in getting the message out that businesses, museums, music venues, hotels and restaurants are reopening as quickly as possible and that Nashville needs convention and tourist dollars to aid its recovery. The city may be struggling, but, Bennett said, “The music will play on.” 

Salvaging memories 

In parishes and neighborhoods throughout Middle Tennessee, families are sorting through the waterlogged remnants of their lives, hoping to salvage important family photos and keepsakes. The rest of their belongings spill onto their front lawns, awaiting debris removal crews. 

When Paula Proctor returned to her River Plantation condo for their first time after the flood, she said, “All I want to do is get my memories out.” Proctor, the director of pastoral activities at St. Henry Church in Nashville, was able to recover almost all of her photos, yearbooks and other sentimental possessions, which were upstairs and undamaged. 

In Proctor’s Bellevue neighborhood, one of the hardest hit in the city, at least two people died while trying to drive through the swift floodwater currents. They included 88-year-old Joseph Formosa, father of Nashville Bishop David Choby’s secretary Mary Margaret Lambert, and his wife Bessie Formosa, 78. 

Across town at the Opryland Hotel complex, which accounts for 12 percent of all hotel rooms in the city and as much as one-quarter of all convention business, flood damage is expected to exceed $50 million. 

For the most part, Nashville diocesan schools and churches, including the most historic ones, escaped the floods unscathed except for minor damage. The chancery office had water damage on the first floor and had to pull out all the carpets, but no archives or valuables were damaged. 

Some Nashville-area diocesan schools were closed the entire week after the flood; a few re-opened throughout the week as they were able. 

After the rain stopped, Pope John Paul II High School in Hendersonville stood like a castle surrounded by a moat on all sides. The school’s athletic fields were under an estimated eight to 10 feet of standing water for several days and access to the school property was restricted by flooded streets. 

Rescuing neighbors 

School administrators drove a boat up to the school building to retrieve some Advanced Placement exams on May 3 so they could be given on time at an alternate location. 

The floodwaters also sent JPII administrators scrambling to reschedule end-of-year plans, including graduation. The school’s May 16 graduation had been planned to take place at the now shuttered Grand Ole Opry House. 

The second diocesan-run high school, Father Ryan, was not flooded, but about 30 percent of families were affected by the flooding. Several faculty members, including Principal Paul Davis, lost their homes. 

The school was closed May 3-4 so students and faculty could clean up their own homes or volunteer to help others. “I have seen students wading into rising waters to save strangers, families offering their homes as safe harbor,” Father Ryan President Jim McIntyre said in a letter to the Father Ryan community. Helping others in this time of crisis “is our mission as a school and Catholic community,” he said. 

Father Ryan senior Will Mix was one of those students who spent several days on the front lines of the flood. When the water began to rise in his West Nashville subdivision on May 2, Mix was helping neighbors move furniture to higher ground. “Then it started getting really bad … we had to swim people out on our backs,” he said. 

Mix and others spent the day rescuing neighbors, helping them escape as the overflowing Harpeth River gushed into the streets and into the first floor of many houses in his subdivision and beyond. With Mix was neighbor Stuart Magness, an administrator at Father Ryan. “It’s a whole lot of damage here,” Magness said, “but the neighborhood has pulled together and people are taking care of each other.” 

Magness said he was proud of his students like Mix and others “who have really, truly stepped up to the plate” to help out during the flood recovery. 

Theresa Laurence writes from Tennessee.

‘Personal tragedy’ (sidebar)

Forty-two counties have now been classified as national disaster areas, and 600 representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency have set up shop in Middle Tennessee to inspect properties and assess the damage. Approximately 17,000 Tennesseans have already registered with FEMA, and more than $4 million in aid has been approved. 

Because many people did not have flood insurance on their private residences, they will have to rely on low-cost loans and some grant money from FEMA, but it will certainly not be enough for people who have lost everything. The flood will be “a personal tragedy for a lot of people,” Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen said, as people may run quickly through their personal savings to rebuild.