Wednesday, May 19, 2010

If Metro Offers to Buy You Out, Should You Take It? Some Things to Consider

Posted by on Wed, May 19, 2010 at 5:05 AM

This should put lie to the notion that our flooding was unprecedented.
  • This should put lie to the notion that our flooding was unprecedented.
Official word has come that Metro is working on a plan to buy flood-damaged homes from people, if their homes meet certain criteria. If you've been trying to figure out the permit situation, however, you probably had already guessed this was the case. After all, if you follow Metro's handy flow-chart and you end up at "Hold for Metro Alternative Program," you have to figure there's an alternative program coming.

So if you're one of the people the city will buy out, should you take it?

I actually don't know. I've had friends who lost homes in the '93 flood in Illinois. Some of them rebuilt on higher ground; some of them rebuilt where they were. All of them anguished over their decisions, long after they'd been made, worried that they should have done the other.

But there are some things that have been glossed over or muddled that you should consider when you're trying to decide what to do.

This flood was not unprecedented

Rivers flood. It's a natural part of the life-cycle of a river. We can do things to mitigate flooding (like dams and levees and river walls) and we can do things to mitigate the damage flooding does (like not building in flood zones), but we can't completely stop flooding from happening.

And rivers flood badly, sometimes. Even with all the best the Army Corps of Engineers can throw at a river, sometimes it's going to do what our rivers did to us. And not all our rivers have flood control systems in place.

If you've seen pictures of the '29 flood, you know it looks pretty similar to what we went through. It's important to know this, because I hear a lot of folks talking about how this flood is unprecedented, a 1,000-year flood or a five hundred year flood and I know a lot of folks think that means that the last time Nashville saw a flood this bad it was 1510 or 1010 and that none of us will live to see the likes of that again. But we've been through this before, and pretty recently.

Which brings me to my next point.

A 1,000-year flood isn't literally a flood that happens once every 1,000 years

Though it would seem like it, that's not what they mean when they say a 1,000-year flood or a 500-year flood. What they mean is that there's a one-in-a-thousand chance a flood like that will happen this year (or, if we're talking about a 500-year flood, a one-in-500 chance). Statistically, over time, that would average out to once every 1,000 years, but that doesn't mean you can't have a flood like this next year or next week, for that matter.

Think of it like a coin toss. When you toss a coin, you have a one in two chance that it will be heads. Statistically, over lengths of time, a coin will land heads up half the time. But you could pull out a penny right now, flip it ten times in a row, and it might come up heads eight times. That doesn't mean that the odds of throwing a head are actually four out of five. It just means that you hit a run of heads. If you kept flipping, you might hit a run of tails. And, if you kept flipping long enough, you'd find that, half the time, it was heads and half tails.

But here's what's crucial. Flipping a head last time doesn't tell you anything about your chances of flipping a head this time. What happened on the last flip has no influence on your current flip. And no influence on the flip after that.

It is the same with this 500-year/1,000-year flood stuff. The fact that we've just had a 500-year/1,000-year flood doesn't buy us any time, no safety cushion before the next flood.

When we roll the dice again to see if we're going to get another historic flood, fate isn't taking what we've just been through into account.

This could happen again. Exactly how it happened this time. Within your lifetime. Hell, if we're really unlucky, within this decade.

Officials know where our city floods. You should too.

If you look at the Army Corps of Engineers' maps of where they predict flood waters from a catastrophic failure of Wolf Creek Dam would go and you look at Metro's map of where this floodwater went, you'll see that the Corps fairly accurately predicted how Nashville floods (though, obviously, they're predicting what will happen if water comes down the Cumberland, not out of the sky, so the maps don't perfectly correspond). Massive amounts of water go where federal, state, and local officials know it goes.

You should take a look at both those maps — where water went during this flood and where it will go should, god forbid, the Wolf Creek dam goes. You should, if you live in this city, understand what parts of the city are under water during major floods and understand that we will have major floods, hopefully less often with good river management, but they cannot be completely avoided.

Not all waterways in our state are well-managed

What I am about to share with you is pretty much unbelievable. So, I'll just warn you up front, what you are about to read will flabbergast you.

From the Jackson Sun:

Herron, D-Dresden, said he was told the state has 70 high-hazard, non-federal dams not being inspected due to exemptions allowed in the Safe Dams Act of 1973.

Eight of those dams are in West Tennessee, 49 in Middle Tennessee and 13 in East Tennessee.

A high-hazard rating means people would likely die if the dam fails.


Now, this isn't necessarily directly applicable to us. Here in Nashville, we live downstream from dams with federal oversight.

But here's the thing. We've got Cooper asking if the Corps screwed up. So maybe their oversight of the waterways is a little shaky. You've got dams overseen by the state that haven't been inspected in decades, even though their failures could kill people.

And these are the folks Metro has to work with. These are the people in charge of keeping your home out of the path of flood waters. One of them may not be doing their job that great and the other is too afraid of the farmers to even do its job at all.

How safe do you feel living in or near a floodplain with these bozos in charge?

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