The Green Issue: Preparing for Increasingly Common Severe Rain Events

Nashville’s 2010 flood

The flash flooding around Nashville late last month didn’t leave as strong an impression as the historic widespread flooding of May 2010. There were fewer indelible images of submerged landmarks, fewer national news hits.

But in some areas of the city, the deluge in 2021 was even worse than 2010, and some people are still trying to dig out. 

At Lesby and Roberto’s home along Nolensville Road, the rainwater flowed “like a river,” Roberto remembers. The couple’s home — which they rent and share with Lesby’s sister, brother-in-law and three kids between the two couples — sits in a low-lying area between the busy South Nashville thoroughfare and a small tributary of Sevenmile Creek. Water from the nearby stream gushed into their home; weeks later, mud still cakes the floor, kitchen tiles buckled from the rising water. Roberto points out shopping carts and other debris left beneath a bridge by the storm, worried the blockage could exacerbate future rains. Though the Honduran couple are undocumented, they weren’t shy about sharing their story via an interpreter, though we’re leaving out their surnames. 

The night of the flood, Lesby decamped with the children to a friend’s house while Roberto stayed at the home, sleeping on a mattress that kept him out of the water on the floor. The strong smell of dampness remains, and the family worries about their kids sleeping in the stinky air. Since then, the family has bounced around to different locations, staying at a hotel paid for by a philanthropic organization for a while and finally moving into a new apartment with three months of rent paid by another organization. With their cars flooded and other needs arising, Roberto had to stay home from his construction job for weeks. 

“The hardest thing has been with the children, taking them back and forth to the hotel, to the house, not having that stability,” Lesby says. 

Roberto and Lesby say the owner of their home has not been helpful and has threatened to withhold their deposit or call the police if they do not clean out the damaged house.

“This is something that happened to us, and it’s worth telling,” Roberto says. 

The family has lived in the home for less than a year, but neighbors say it also flooded in 2010. And with experts predicting increasingly common severe rain events in Nashville, induced in part by climate change, more and more families will be faced with Roberto and Lesby’s expensive, traumatic experience.  

“As Nashville continues to rebuild from the flood and recover from the ongoing pandemic, we have to make sure that our hardest-hit communities receive the relief they need,” says Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, which has helped coordinate response in the immigrant-heavy communities where flooding was most severe. “We’ve experienced so much loss over the past year, and while resilient, our communities are suffering. We need equitable and inclusive emergency response and relief that prioritizes the communities that are too often left behind in these critical moments.”

At the Harding Place Condos, not far from Lesby and Roberto’s house, even more families — many of them working-class immigrants — were turned out of their homes after the flood. Though only some of the units were damaged by floodwaters, everyone was evacuated a few days later when Metro officials determined that submerged electrical equipment posed a fire hazard. The resulting scene was chaotic, according to Metro Councilmember Courtney Johnston, who was on the scene helping coordinate the evacuation. Johnston’s District 26 includes much of the hardest-hit areas from the most recent flood. She estimates that hundreds of her constituents are now homeless.

“When we have an emergency like this, that is when government is the most needed,” Johnston says. “We should have had a more swift response, we should have had a more coordinated response, and I can tell you, when the dust settles from this, we will, because I’m not going to let it go. … What we have is a ton of resources, but what we don’t have is coordination of those resources. And that’s chaos, and I can’t respond to chaos with chaos.”

Lots of people, including at Metro government, are working to mitigate the impacts of future flooding. That work started in earnest after the 2010 flood and continues today.  

Metro — along with federal partners — has bought more than 400 homes in flood-prone areas, most of which have been demolished and converted to green space. The city has added regulations requiring new development to better absorb rainfall. Metro continues to update its flood maps, with the goal of giving residents and emergency responders better information about potential floods. And in addition to other moves, Metro is working on bolstering its river gauge system and floodproofing water treatment and other water facilities. 

“When you look at a map of Nashville, you see a lot of creeks and streams, which is a blessing, but it also puts us at higher risk of flooding,” says Sonia Allman of Metro Water Services. “We need to always be aware of our flood risk. You think of that right after a flood, but as years go by you tend to forget the severity and you forget that risk until you receive another reminder, as we just did.”

But when inundated with the amount of rain that fell in 2010 — or in March — even the best-intended mitigation efforts are likely to fall short and leave at least some residents vulnerable, including in places beyond federally designated flood zones. 

“We can’t develop solutions that are absolutely bulletproof,” says Hiba Baroud, a Vanderbilt University professor whose research focuses on infrastructure resilience and data science. 

Instead, Baroud says, the goal is to focus on reducing “shocks” to the system. An additional goal of her work, she says, is to make sure “we don’t think of the built environment as just the buildings or just the infrastructure, but think about it in terms of the people who rely on these services, thinking about the built environment as a service provider to people.”

There have been new development regulations — including those targeted at what Metro Water Services’ Allman describes as a loophole for infill developments like tall-and-skinnies. But the rapid-fire build-out of Nashville’s neighborhoods and business districts in the decade-plus since the 2010 flood has not helped the situation. 

Dr. David Padgett, a longtime Tennessee State University professor focusing on hydrology and geography, has seen the issue firsthand, including in his outside work advising on climate-change mitigation in low-lying places like New Orleans and Miami. In Nashville, the effects of climate change are less obvious, at least until another flood hits. And Padgett, like other experts, predicts the rains will keep coming. 

“People would be amazed at how much plants absorb in terms of volume of water,” Padgett says. “That’s why when we denude the land of plants and grass, you immediately see runoff increase. You can see what happens when we pave over, bulldoze, cut down trees, and that water has no place to go except perhaps your living room and basement.”

Often, he says, those effects are felt more acutely in poorer neighborhoods — whether that’s because of a lack of investment in mitigation efforts, a lack of trees and open space or other compounding factors. It could also be attributed to who is asking for help for the neighborhood. For example, he says, “If Ms. Jenkins from the East Side goes to the meeting and says, ‘Well my house is getting flooded,’ and she’s angry and doesn’t present a solution,” she and her community will have less success than a well-resourced, well-connected community. 

But that’s changing, if slowly.

“A lot of communities even here in Nashville are becoming much more aware of the role they can play in flood mitigation,” Padgett says.

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