30 May 2011

The flood

On May 1, 2010, Mr. P was visiting me at what would become “our” house in about six weeks, when we got married. It started to rain. And it didn’t stop for two days, after a weather system dumped over thirteen inches of rain on Nashville and the surrounding areas. The original predictions were for three to four inches, maybe some flash flooding. When we passed six inches in a matter of hours, and the clouds showed no indication of moving, all of the people in Nashville began to very quietly freak out.

Our local news crews (holla, WSMV!) took over the airwaves nonstop, providing information about which areas needed to evacuate, where the rescue boats were headed. They showed live aerial footage, including one home that made me cry and wring my hands because it was on fire but completely surrounded by water and the rescuers in the boats kept circling and circling trying to figure out how to get in and check to see if there were people inside. Technology-savvy Nashvillians lit up Twitter with hashtags like #splashville, #nashlantis, and #rebuildthiscityonrockandroll. At one point, this was the incident report from Tennessee Department of Transportation’s website. Hint: BLUE MEANS UNDERWATER.

There were moments of levity, like this:

And moments of laugh-because-otherwise-you-cry, like when the school floated down the interstate:

But for the most part? For those two days, the only thing that kept the situation from being completely terrifying was how surreal it all was. This video is excellent because it shows the the downtown area a day or two after the rain stopped, and it is so quiet and sunny and peaceful such that you can almost ignore the fact that entire parts of the city were DESTROYED and people needed help so badly.

Nashville Flood 2010 from Ben De Rienzo on Vimeo.

At the same time elsewhere, the rest of the country was preoccupied with the early days of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, as well as a Pakistani man named Faisal Shahzad who had just attempted to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. Nashville was paying no attention. Unfortunately, the feeling was mutual.

“That we cannot give those endangered or in need our full attention this day, does not mean we cannot give them our help.” – Keith Olbermann

It’s been said a few – no, many – times that the reason we didn’t get national attention was that “We Are Nashville”, meaning we took care of the situation on our own without squawking and crying for help and so the situation didn’t seem so bad to everyone else. And so we pat ourselves on the back for being ignored. After all, we are the Volunteer State, living up to our nicknames! Maybe. I don’t know. I think there really were bigger problems going on in the world. I think there were Nashvillians who didn’t help and there were out-of-staters rending their garments on our behalves. I can't say definitively why Nashville didn't get more press coverage than it did for a disaster of its size. But I do know that on the whole? People were so, so good. Everyone took the attitude that someone had to do it, so it might as well be them.

Click for full size. It is beautiful.

Because of the way the river and its tributaries wind through Nashville, the flooding was widespread, but also sort of hit-or-miss. So everyone at least knew someone whose home suffered major damage. As for me, my home is less than a mile from a river, dammed up to form a lake. To say that I feel fortunate that my home went untouched is a vast understatement. Since nobody lives too far from a body of water in Nashville, I think everyone felt the same shock that it could have happened to them.

My reason for thinking about this nowadays is the release of a new short film on the Nashville flood and the response of the citizens. If you have about twenty minutes (the last five are credits), it's worth watching. It’s been over a year, and yet when I watch it, I still get that jerky stomach-cry and tear up. It’s true that in the grand scheme of natural disasters, Nashville’s experience was peanuts. It wasn’t the Haiti earthquake, it wasn’t the Japan tsunami. We lost way more musical instruments than lives. The whole city was affected, but for most people it was being inconvenienced, by strictly conserving water and finding alternate routes to work and spending the weekend cleaning out flooded neighborhoods instead of relaxing at their undamaged home. I think some people might even find it silly that someone made a short film about Nashville’s flood, because there are BIGGER PROBLEMS.

Yes. And yet I’ll always have a heartstring attached to the Nashville flood. It’s the biggest natural disaster I’ve lived through, and it was scary then and scarier now, with the sheen of surrealism gone. However, it also was the first experience I’ve ever had with so many people reacting to their core instinct, and I am overjoyed to know that the core instinct was goodness. I think I will always hold on to the Nashville flood as the real-life example that in general, people are intrinsically good. At the time, there was no stopping to look around at how great we were, patting ourselves on the back for volunteering. It was just, Go. Do. Help. Is it done? No? Keep going. Keep doing. Keep helping.

If that's the basic instinct of Nashvillians? Of people? We are all going to be okay.

Nashville Rises from IGBA Productions on Vimeo.

“Known as the 1000 year flood, the disaster that washed over Nashville was only overshadowed by the flood of over 10,000 volunteers in a matter of nine days.” – Nashville Rises