A radio plays indiscriminate talk behind the front door of Mary Johnson's Bordeaux Hills house. It plays nonstop, in fact, unless she is trying to explain to a visitor what happened here, now nine months ago, which might as well be ages ago. But the only visitors are inspectors: from government agencies, from relief organizations, from groups of volunteers.
They don't come often. No one does.
Not even her.
Outside, Johnson's one-story ranch-style house looks normal enough. A three-bulb garden lamp stays lit with one light. The yard is manicured, even for the winter. From the street, a row of flowers along the walkway looks healthy — vibrant, even. But up close, you see: They're fake.
Up close, you see the crack lengthways in the storm door, the result of an attempted break-in. Up close, you notice bricks missing from the backside of the standalone mailbox. You notice dust on the blinds.
The main floor of Johnson's house, where the radio plays all the time, is nearly impassable. In what was once a sitting room — dominated by an etching of the Manhattan skyline on a wall-sized mirror and a four-person couch — now are boxes and boxes and boxes of knickknacks, clothes strewn randomly, pairs of boots and shoes, and more clothes in as-seen-on-TV "space bags," the ones you fill and then vacuum out the excess air to make compact and storable. There are cans of paint at the foot of the console radio.
In the main bathroom, the algae-like film on the toilet water suggests it hasn't been flushed in weeks. The combs and canister of foundation still sitting out say that someone left in a hurry, and hasn't paid attention since.
Like many things slow to arrive in Bordeaux — public attention, large-scale economic development — the flood didn't come first to Johnson's Bordeaux Hills community, a place where older residents have struggled to reassert the neighborhood's roots amid waves of youth violence. It rained and rained and rained that first weekend in May, Johnson says, but it wasn't until early Monday morning that she looked out the window and couldn't find the fence that outlines her backyard for all the water.
As with many of the houses on her side of the street, Johnson's lot is high and level in the front but drops off a story or so in the back. Her basement, which doubled as her television room and main lounging area, its bedrooms used for guests now that her children are grown, opens onto the backyard. When the water came — a foul mixture of sewage, mud and rain — it trampled her back door and rose up about four feet in the basement. And then it sat there.
When the water finally receded the following Thursday, and residents of Bordeaux Hills were allowed back into their homes, a dozen or so volunteers helped Johnson tear out all the drywall in her basement four feet up and lower. But the damage left was devastating. The water ruined everything it touched. A few books still sit high on a bookshelf, corrupted artifacts of life before the flood. They smell awful.
"I smile to keep from crying," Johnson says, her face searching for some emotional middle ground. Her eyes well with tears that tumble in seconds. "I don't come down here. I don't come down here unless I have to show somebody. This was my main area."
Mary Johnson is one of a handful of people in this northwestern Davidson County suburb who remain stuck at the starting line of recovery from May's historic floods. She fits a profile that has emerged long after the concussive trauma of Nashville's strangest summer faded. An older black woman on the underside of middle class, Johnson fled her home of 30 years, perhaps in some subconscious act of mental self-preservation. And for months, she avoided doing anything that might help her recover it.
She is not alone. Dozens of people across Davidson County appear to be experiencing some form of post-traumatic stress disorder or trauma-induced depression caused by last year's flood. The Tennessee Department of Mental Health has provided mental health services via five local agencies through a federal grant in the flood's aftermath. Since last summer, it has recorded more than 20,000 office visits for counseling and other services related to flood trauma.
Avoidance — a particular problem among a subset of Bordeaux Hills residents — is a touchstone.
"A lot of people think all the flood victims are back in their homes," Johnson says, standing in her basement on a recent afternoon, the sun refracted through her warped storm door. "But they don't realize that there are still people staying in hotels, with [other] people ...
"Our whole lives are just gone. It hurts."
Johnson and her neighbors were paralyzed. With their homes waterlogged, their belongings destroyed, their mementos washed away, none could really look any further than the next morning. Perhaps somewhere, in the deep corners of their minds, they felt nothing short of a savior was needed.
What they got was a 50-year-old single mother of four and dedicated churchgoer who, aside from going to work five days a week at the Bureau of TennCare in MetroCenter, has spent almost every waking moment since the summer trying to pull them back — sometimes against their wills — to something like their former lives.
Ruby Baker, a short, indefatigable woman who rarely dresses in shades lighter than slate gray, may seem modest almost to a fault. But little escapes her notice. During a conversation in her crossover SUV, on the way back from a trip to Lowe's to pick up a five-gallon bucket of paint, she stops mid-sentence in conversation.
"Something is rolling around over there," she says, nodding toward the passenger-side door. Sure enough, there's a rattle. A visitor reaches inside, only to find a peanut M&M bouncing around in the plastic door pocket. Problem found, problem solved. It's a quality her neighbors had come to rely on over the years.
On the afternoon of Baker's first meeting as president of the Bordeaux Hills Neighborhood Watch, she got some bad news: There had been a shooting. It was October 2009, and Baker had no experience leading a community group like this one. It represents the neighborhood where she's lived for 16 years, among more than 700 households. In their section of northwest Nashville, they sometimes felt isolated from the rest of the city.
"Bordeaux Hills would always get attention for crime," Baker says. "There may have been some positive things going on, but where we are, tucked away back there, we were beginning to feel defeated. Everywhere you turned was crime."
Baker was among several residents who, fed up and overwhelmed by creeping violence, had tried and failed to sell their houses. But resiliency can sometimes follow admission of defeat. Baker found that her neighbors were tired of having to use their back doors to come and go. Many had specific ideas about retaking their neighborhood.
About 40 residents started coming loyally to monthly meetings. As they took hold, police officers from the North Precinct became more available. More patrols followed. People there got into the rhythms of an active neighborhood. Encouraged, they voted Baker president of the Bordeaux Hills Residential Association.
Before May, the neighborhood had made gains, though change came at a frustratingly slow clip. A neighborhood association alone can't stamp out gang activity. Criminal problems such as burglaries and drug dealing persist, North Precinct community coordinator Sgt. Ricky Williams says. But the neighborhood group works closely with police in reporting suspicious activity, he says, and it has become "very strong."
And as its leader, Baker had become an unlikely community magnet. She is more comfortable in the background, and when she is complimented for her work — which is almost anytime she's around her neighbors — she demurs, averting her eyes and offering an abashed "Just pray for me" in place of a thank-you. While she will interrupt just about anything to answer her dinging cell phone, Baker is at least polite about it: She always asks permission to break a conversation.
It was natural, then, that when the floodwaters arrived in a violent swoosh that Monday morning in May, Baker's phone started ringing.
"First thing I did was to make sure everybody was accounted for," Baker says. "The waters rose so fast, a lot had to be evacuated during the middle of the night. It was like 1, 2 o'clock in the morning — early Monday morning."
By daylight, the water covered parts of the street. Entire sections of the suburb were already so far under you'd need a dinghy to access them. After a couple rounds of phone calls, Baker and others went door-to-door — where they could — to get people out of their homes, which were becoming traps.
No one was killed. But when the water receded three days later, it revealed wreckage that longtime residents say they'd never seen. Front yards were hidden under slushpiles of mud-crusted debris, studded with furniture, clothes, electronics, family photos and other keepsakes — items of priceless sentimental value, now rendered worthless. The stench was pervasive and ferocious.
Baker and other volunteers found that first off, people needed water and food. Refrigerators had been blown and pantries raided by the spew of sewage water. As volunteer groups and the Red Cross brought three meals a day to the vanquished neighborhood, Baker plugged herself into the emerging help network that included such groups as Hands On Nashville.
In the quieter moments immediately after the flood, though, she gave over to a familiar impulse. For the last 15 years, Baker has worked in video ministry at Born Again Church. She says she's never far from a camera, and she couldn't fend off the voyeuristic urge. With her 25-year-old daughter Tianna and 22-year-old son Timothy in tow, Baker took her camera and set out to document the biggest natural disaster of her lifetime in Nashville.
Looking back, Baker admits she was not fully aware of what had happened outside Bordeaux Hills, and she confesses that in the moment she was indifferent to the effect her camera might have on those she'd film. That ended shortly after she came upon a few people stuck inside a flooded house.
A fire truck was at the scene, and rescue workers had extended a truck ladder sideways to pluck the people out. Baker poised her camera to capture the unfolding drama. As the fire truck backed up, a firefighter caught sight of her. He looked at Baker and her camera, with an angry expression she still recalls vividly, and cut her to the quick with a single question: "What're you taping for?"
"And I was like" — she mimics a gasp — "and I just immediately turned my camera off," Baker says, her voice softening. "I felt that from him. It got personal then. It wasn't just videotaping a story, all the water. At that moment, I think that's when it got personal for me.
"When I heard him say that, I shut my camera off, and I have not videotaped since then."
It was a jarring moment for Baker, an unassuming woman with an ever-pleasant countenance who'd never be described as imposing or even tall. She went home — her house sustained no damage — and tried to make sense of the last couple days. Shaken, she returned to the place where she'd found the fire truck, and asked what she could do to help.
Baker began visiting the various immediate response centers that had been established to collect donations, loading up her crossover SUV and returning with food, water and other supplies. Most of the people in Bordeaux Hills are elderly, she says, "so they didn't have vehicles to go get what was readily available."
That day touched off what would become months of service. In the days that followed, Baker kept going door to door, notebook in hand, asking what people needed. She noticed that she was writing down the same things: food, water, help finding a contractor, a painter, aid money. She compiled it all in a massive spreadsheet. Along the way, she noticed that flood victims seemed to follow a similar pattern.
Once they assessed the damages, she noted, everything had to be cleared out — tear down wet drywall, remove waterlogged furniture. The next stage was to get help, whether it was FEMA, a state agency or Metro — all of which offered some kind of assistance. Then people needed to find contractors. A month or so after the flood, Baker started having weekly how-to meetings: selecting a contractor, applying for FEMA aid.
"A lot of people were in shock," Baker says. "They were not thinking normally, not like you and I would think if we were not affected. So I wasn't expecting them to think rationally. Think about what you need — they really could not do that. They needed our help, treating them almost like you would treat a child, just walking them through a little at a time."
Baker requested call logs from United Way's 211 community help line and found that 532 people in the First District had phoned for assistance. She sorted those by street and neighborhood, discovering that Bordeaux Hills residents had made only 85 calls. That didn't match the 165 households she'd found that needed help. So she printed out a poster-sized map of her neighborhood and colored the damaged houses with a blue marker.
As time moved forward, the aura of helpfulness and civic spirit that defined the post-flood days and weeks faded. Still, Baker found herself coloring more houses blue on the map. Between July and October, through door-knocking, phone calls and word of mouth, she found an additional two dozen victims, each suffering some version of the same affliction.
No sooner had she mapped out this one pattern, though, than another began to emerge. This new problem, and its rippling aftereffects, gave physical shape to the avoidance, depression and neglect Bordeaux's hidden flood victims were fighting, and it came in the guise of a dangerous household scourge: black mold.
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