It was just after the water receded, when ripping out drywall and hauling off family-treasures-turned-debris was the prevailing civic pastime. Congressman Jim Cooper was touring parts of his devastated district in Pennington Bend, where streets were lined with waterlogged refuse, formerly the stuff of everyday lives.
"This guy called out to me, 'Hey, Congressman!' " Cooper recalls. "I walked over to him — I didn't know who he was — and he said, 'You don't know me, but I'm from the [U.S. Army] Corps [of Engineers] in Washington.' "
"What are you doing cleaning out this house?" Cooper asked.
"This is my daughter's house," the official replied. "She called me every hour during the flood, and I finally told her to get out of there. It didn't matter what local people were saying: Get out of that house."
It was a good thing she did.
Meanwhile, the anecdote underscores what the congressman finds most troubling about the lack of communication and information coming from the federal agency during that fateful May weekend. "You shouldn't have to have a dad in the corps in Washington to tell you how to save your own neck," he says.
Cooper finds it utterly staggering that no one had any notice about how quickly the water was rising, and that there were no warnings to evacuate. "The latest data we have, I think, is the water rose 19 feet in 16 hours. That's an unbelievable horizon," he says. "And you look at Metro Nashville, which lost like 80 buses. With an hour or two warning, we might have been able to save those buses. NES lost like 40 bucket trucks. You know, nobody had any warning. Cars were left in driveways.
"This is spooky. If anybody had any idea it was going up 19 feet, maybe they should have told somebody."
The congressman isn't ready to assign any villains in this narrative, but he's not heartened either. He's endlessly frustrated about what he has learned of the corps' response during the natural disaster, not to mention its handling of subsequent inquiries and the way it has chosen to brief elected officials and others about how it will assess its disaster response after the fact.
"You know, they fly these lieutenant colonels in here every two years," Cooper says. The corps' Nashville District commander, Lt. Col. Anthony Mitchell, is a perfectly nice man, Cooper says, but he's had "zero water management experience. And then he gets hit with the flood of the century. I really do feel sorry for him. I think he's trying to do a good job, but there should be a corps booklet on how to handle these things. There's a federal disaster somewhere every three days."
It's not at all clear yet whether the corps will be performing the most comprehensive kind of post-disaster report it offers internally. That report is still in the funding approval stages, and may have been requested by the Nashville District office only because of pressure from Cooper. Before that, it appeared that the mammoth bureaucracy was perfectly satisfied to publish only its most perfunctory, pro forma kind of report.
It's befuddling. Nashville was hit plenty hard, but consider too the fate of those areas where both the Harpeth and Cumberland rivers drain. In Cheatham County, they found a dead horse in a tree. Water rose a full 25 feet over homes there. "There were vultures in the fields," Cooper says, "and they were hoping they weren't finding human remains."
The country's largest engineering firm tends to hide a lot of what it's doing in military language (even though, by the agency's own accounting, there are only 650 uniformed military among the total 35,000 corps employees — or .02 percent).
"It makes it devilish to figure out what they're talking about," Cooper says. "When we were briefed a month ago and they said 'after-action report,' well, I thought that was the big deal, the full deal. I had no idea that a 'post-flood report' meant something bigger and stronger and better and that we had a post-flood report in 1975. You shouldn't have to play 20 questions with these guys. It would have been great if they'd said, 'Look, there are three or four different ways to respond to a flood. ... That would have been a great way to brief us on this. That's not what we got."
Some of Lt. Col. Mitchell's responses have been wince-inducing. During a media briefing in late May, he offered this vaguely troubling, unauthoritative comment: "When you're in that flood fight and things are happening so fast, the pools are rising so quickly, and you've got phone calls and requests and the media and all this, and you're trying to control the river at the same time, you're acting as best you can. You're human."
And in a May 23 Tennessean op-ed, he dug himself deeper on the question of the corps' lack of communication with citizens. "We have heard from many concerned citizens that they received no warning from the corps that we were releasing water from our dams, and that notification from us regarding those releases could have allowed them to move their families or their property to safety," he wrote.
"The public needs two basic pieces of information in a flood: how high the water is going to get and when it's going to get there. That information gets out to the public and to officials by way of the National Weather Service, through weather radios and through the media. The NWS makes those predictions and warnings based on information we provide to them about our release plans.
"If the corps had provided to the public a third piece, how much water we were releasing and when, we would have run the risk of confusing the public and officials."
It was the perfect illustration of the corps' insular nature, Cooper says. "The corps is not very good at communicating with the public. Part of it is that they're engineers, and they think the public isn't smart enough to understand. My attitude is the public owns this country, and it's our job to communicate with them in ways that they understand."
Even more damning than its communication missteps may be the supposed flood-control actions of the agency. In a May 2 email that WSMV-Channel 4 unearthed via a Freedom of Information Act request, senior hydraulic engineer John Hunter noted that it seemed "weird" so much water was being released from Old Hickory dam. "This is unheard of ... to drop the lake .5 feet during a flood of record and force such an increase in flow on Nashville, which is just downstream is very strange. Worth checking on to find out what the heck is going on!!!"
The corps' logic during the flood is a mystery, even to Cooper, who recently gave an extensive speech about all the concerns the flood exposed, complete with a dizzyingly detailed slide presentation, to Nashville's influential Downtown Rotary Club.
"The corps will tell you today they don't do flood control," Cooper says. "They do flood risk management, which is what I call in a slide 'part-time, anti-flood control.' "
The congressman recently learned from "a little bird" that the corps has just completed a massive study of all the 600 Army Corps dams in the country. "When they do this massive multimillion-dollar government study, wouldn't it be nice if they told the congressman down river?" Cooper asks. "I said to the folks in Washington, 'How can I get a copy?' and they said, 'Your local corps has it.' Well, they're going to be the last ones to tell me about it.
"I'm on the Armed Services Committee. I have jurisdiction over the entire Army. It is amazing. Like I said, I'm not faulting the colonel, but this organization structure in which they parachute somebody in nearly every two years, is unreal. They can barely learn where Donelson is in that time."
If the corps funds the more extensive report, it would expose internal communications and no doubt help get to the bottom of what mistakes were made, and by whom.
"Something doesn't seem right, and I don't know exactly what it is, but I kind of smell a rat," Cooper says. " And I hope there isn't a rat, but I've got to continue to see if there is a rat."
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