Lessons from Nashville, Tennessee–That “Oh My Gosh” Moment, by Cheryl C.

I live in Nashville, Tennessee.  Most people have heard about the devastation of the recent flooding of  our city –what a  lot of folks don’t know is that there were over 1,400 boat rescues of stranded people who could not (or would not) evacuate their homes before the water overtook them.  The events of these past few weeks has heightened my disaster preparedness and has proven to me once again “that being prepared” is paramount “to surviving” any natural or man-made disaster.

This brings me to share with you what I call the “oh my gosh” moment.  When the forecast for Nashville was for heavy rain on Saturday, May 1st it was just that –heavy rain.  I work at Opry Mills Shopping Mall right next to the OpryLand Hotel.  Saturday it was pouring cats and dogs.  I worked from 2:00 p.m. till our normal closing time of 10:00 p.m..  A lot of the employees were hoping that we would close early not only because of the torrential rain – but because we were also in a severe storm warning.  The roof was leaking in several spots so we had to keep bringing buckets from the stock room to hold the water.  The store was busy – we even had customers until the last register closed. I live 10 miles from work but had no trouble getting home.

The next day Sunday, I was scheduled to work at 1:00 p.m..  I had heard on the news when I got up that we had had 6 inches of rain – a near record amount of rainfall for Nashville and it was still pouring like crazy and was predicted to rain all day. At 9:30 my husband asked me to go to the store for a pack of cigarettes.  Well that ½-mile trip to the store scared me half to death.  Because of the heavy rain, every low spot in the area was filling up and with no place to go was now gushing over the roads. And not slowly – very fast. Small cars were having trouble going through it and even with a large car, I could see how this would very soon get out of hand. The road in front of Opry Mills- Briley Parkway -is a low spot and I knew that if I went to work it would be very dicey coming home.  When I got back from the store I told my husband I would not go to work no matter what – in fact I decided I would wait till noon and call out. I thought: “Well, I didn’t have to do that.”  At 11:00, my supervisor called and said the store would be closed because Briley Parkway was starting to flood and that tomorrow the managers would call the employees if it was safe to come in.

Later that night, my husband and I were eating dinner and the local news station was showing pictures of cars stranded on the freeway – people being evacuated from homes and the like. The announcer said ”Someone has sent us a picture of Opry Mills”  Well it showed the shopping center –the parking lot and the road completely under water and our store under three feet of water!  The Cumberland River had overflowed and would not crest for 12 more hours!

That was it- that was my “oh my gosh” moment when it hit me that this was not just some rainfall –not just some flooding – this was really a very serious situation. About one hour after that, I heard they were evacuating Opryland Hotel – a major feat since they had 1,500 people in the hotel and no place to go.

I had experienced this same moment about 15 years ago. I was living in Chattanooga, Tennessee. and was in the worst tornado that ever hit the city.  I remember that night- it was not storming- not even raining. We did not have any severe weather predicted.  Just all of a sudden, the wind started howling – I looked outside and all the trees were leaning almost horizontally because the wind was so strong. That’s when it hit me “oh my gosh” –this is serious- I got to the safest place I had access to and within  minutes a tornado fell from the sky and completely destroyed four of the eight buildings in my apt. complex.  I am happy to let everyone know that I was not injured and never experienced any loss of property in either disaster. After seeing the chaos and what happens in the aftermath of these situations there is one thing I learned: You need to try to get out of any bad situation as soon as you have that “Oh my gosh” moment. Why?  Because you may not be able to do so afterwards.  After the tornado –within about 10 minutes the apt complex was surrounded by police and fire trucks. You could smell gas in the air and I found out very soon that a main gas line had broken.  The chief fire marshal came in and did a door-to-door evacuation.  He knocked on my door and said I had to leave, immediately!  It was dark in the apartment and I couldn’t find my purse – he said to me – you must get out Now!  Okay – no purse, no driver’s license, no money – I had to go.  We were told to walk to the front of the apt. complex and that we would be taken to shelters.  I realized that even without my purse, I was one of the lucky ones – I had on sweats and a pair of moccasins.  Most people were in their pajamas, nightgowns or underwear, with no shoes.  The tornado had hit at 1:30 in the morning and many had been thrown out of their beds (literally into the parking lot.)  Everything was very chaotic – people were injured- many had cuts on their feet because over one hundred cars in the parking lot had imploded and there was glass and debris everywhere. Even with no experience about shelters and FEMA, etc. I knew I was not going to a shelter.  I had a friend that lived 3 blocks from the site.  During the confusion – when the fire marshal turned his back — I started to walk away — not fast but very controlled – no one saw me. I got to my friends house and stayed there.

One of the articles this week in the Nashville paper told of one neighborhood that was flooded out.  The lady that they interviewed told the reporter how they had called the police and emergency agency and asked if they needed to evacuate.  They could get no answers. Finally, her cousin that worked on one of the dams called her and said Leave!  They knocked on the doors of their neighbors and evacuated – just as the water was almost blocking their exit.

I thought to myself, “Why did she wait? She was concerned enough to call!  She doesn’t need permission to leave her house.  Why did some of the other people wait?” (Not leaving even when the water was 3 feet, 4 feet, some not leaving even when the first responders were there to help them.)  It reminded me of 9/11. When the plane hit the first twin tower someone called the police from the other tower to ask if they should evacuate- the police told them “no”.

Remember when you were little and something bad happened?  Maybe it wasn’t the end of the world, but it was disturbing your little world. You probably cried or screamed very loudly.  Then what happened?  Probably your mom or dad came and said – it’s okay – nothing is going to happen.  All the adults would “discount” your gut instincts and then through the years you no longer listened to your gut instinct.  You may have heard that“oh my gosh” this is serious -in your head initially but shortly after that you heard the words- It will be okay!  Well I want everyone to start listening to their gut instincts.  If you think it is be a bad situation, get out immediately!!  The worst that could happen is that everything will be okay and you can return home.  But if you don’t seize that opportunity, it may not come around again.

For all the people that have little hideouts outside the city there is a lesson to be learned. In Nashville both interstates I -24 and I-40 had areas underwater and were impassible as were many side roads.   I’ve had to re-do my evacuation plan to not just include the best routes out of the city but to include every route out. You never know which roads may be affected. Since this flood included 30 counties even into Kentucky, this made escaping extremely hard.  Like I said – if you want to get out it has to be done before things get out of hand. Fortunately, this disaster was local and was handled very well by our mayor and city officials.  Opry Mills went completely underwater and the Opryland Hotel had 6 feet of standing water – if you go to youtube there are some amazing pictures of the flooding of our city. We are without work until the rebuilding- 2 to 4 months.  Opryland Hotel may not open for six months.  It was very scary and will make me work harder to get my survival plan in place.  The next event could be worse, much worse.

Lessons from Nashville, Tennessee – Small Windows of Opportunity

I talked to you about the need to evacuate an emergency as soon as you realize the situation or that “oh my gosh” moment.  Now I want to tell you about the small window of opportunity you may have immediately following a disaster.  Although my home was virtually cut off from the main road (we live on a peninsula on the water).  We live in the very center of the peninsula and on the highest ground in the area.  That meant that although there was drama all around us – my husband and I were safe.  Nashville virtually came to a standstill on Monday after the rain.  Most businesses were closed- the Mayor asked everyone to stay home so they could assess the damage and the worst  was not over because after all the small rivers flooded and were receding the big river – the Cumberland would not crest until later that day.  People set glued to their television sets all weekend- the local channels broadcast the news 24/7.  There was so much damage over such a large area it took a long time to see everything that was going on.  The Cumberland River finally crested at 8:00 p.m. in Nashville 10 feet above flood level.  In Clarksville Tennessee, an area lower in elevation- the Cumberland crested at 20 feet above flood level.  It seemed strange that the worst flooding came after the rain on a beautiful warm and sunny day.  The next day –Tuesday I got up early.  People were venturing out of their houses for the first time and wow what a site.  Even though some water was receding it was awful.  Our local park was a mess – five feet underwater and every ballpark fence down.  So many roads were still flooded it was almost impossible to drive without being detoured. 

As people were gawking at the site, I had an agenda.  The first thing on my list was to get to the grocery store.  My regular store was closed – they lost power during the storm and lost all their frozen foods.  I went to the other store expecting it to be crowded. To my surprise and delight it wasn’t.  Being a prepper I already had a stocked pantry and freezer but my intent was to get some milk, bananas, fresh produce and bottled water.  Even though I did have some I knew it would be in short supply very soon. (At the time of this writing 20 days after the storm we are still on water conservation because one water treatment plant went down with the flood.)  I was right about the water – they had sold out of my brand. I left and went to another store and got what I needed but noticed that as I was leaving – people were getting up and figuring out they better get stuff before it is gone.  My husband needed cigarettes and when I asked for a carton I noticed the girl pulled the last one of his brand off the shelf. Hmmmm  I thought maybe I should go get another carton.  My next stop was the gas station where I topped off the car and bought the other carton of cigarettes. Now on to the bank(s).  We have four bank accounts for a variety of reasons.  I went to each of them and pulled out the maximum amount that you can get for one day at the ATMs.  I do keep cash at the house but decided to get a little more than usual just in case. I purposely did not go into the banks so as to not let my tellers think I panic in situations such as these.  Besides by having multiple bank accounts you can get so much more out without drawing attention to yourself.   By 9:30 when the majority of our neighborhood was just venturing out I was on my way home with everything we would need to be comfortable for at least a month- even longer in the event we would go into “emergency mode”.  Fortunately for our city the Mayor and city officials were very much on top of everything and even though there was widespread destruction there were only minor incidents of looting. Maybe it helps to live in the Bible belt.  At any rate you need to be aware that you have to act fast in any emergency and take advantage of these small  windows of opportunity.