After Floods, Nashville Proud Of Model Recovery

As communities across the country's midsection respond to potentially historic flooding, federal emergency officials say they could take some cues from Nashville. The city endured record-breaking rainfall and devastating floods one year ago, and FEMA continues to point to the local response as a model. From member station WPLN, Blake Farmer reports.

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As Alabama and other states begin to rebuild, they may find inspiration in Nashville. Tennessee's second-largest city is still rebuilding one year after a historic flood killed 24 people and swamped landmark buildings. The stage of the Grand Ole Opry was under water. Some 68,000 homes were damaged. But at the time, the disaster was overshadowed by the Gulf oil spill, and a thwarted bombing in Times Square. Many in Tennessee said they were on their own.

And as Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports, thats a point of pride for some.

BLAKE FARMER: The flood produced surreal images, like a portable school building floating down an interstate. The creek in the backyard of James Bobo turned into a raging river.

Mr. JAMES BOBO: Seen the neighbors' houses just floating on by, about 30 miles per hour.

FARMER: Dozens of fallen trees still point downstream. But Bobos house has been repaired.

Mr. BOBO: After watching the disaster in Katrina and the people down there waiting on help, we figured that wed just go ahead and take care of it ourselves. We werent going to stand around and wait for anyone else to come help.

FARMER: Many made the Katrina comparison. CNNs Anderson Cooper, one of the few newsmen who ventured to Tennessee, saw soggy drywall and insulation stacked in piles as he interviewed country music stars Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.

ANDERSON COOPER: Its amazing 'cause we were in New Orleans together...

Ms. FAITH HILL (Singer): Uh-huh.

COOPER: ...and it took months, in some cases...

Ms. HILL: Just to get to this point.

Mr. TIM MCGRAW (Singer): To get to this point.

COOPER: ...to get to this point.

Ms. HILL: Yeah.

FARMER: A local sportswriter noted how little looting there was and coined the phrase: We Are Nashville. Before long, the slogan of self-reliance was on T-shirts.

(Soundbite of machinery)

FARMER: This rotary screen printer worked overtime to fulfill 10,000 orders. Proceeds went to flood relief.

Sam Davidson, founder of Cool People Care, says his We Are Nashville shirts were a way for residents to show their pride.

Mr. SAM DAVIDSON (Founder, Cool People Care): I dont think there is, necessarily, anything territorial about it. I think its something that yeah, doesnt necessarily say that other cities arent Nashville - but then again, theyre not.

Mayor KARL DEAN (Nashville, Tennessee): We got 20,000 people on the streets of our city, helping clean up. I dont think many places can say that.

FARMER: Nashville Mayor Karl Dean says he has never been so proud. Man-hours aside, the T-shirts, telethons, and a string of Garth Brooks benefit concerts raised more than $14 million. Foundations and nonprofits chipped in a few million more. But that is a fraction of the $600 million the Federal Emergency Management Agency has pumped into Tennessee.

Mayor Dean acknowledges FEMA is paying many of the bills.

Mayor DEAN: The story in Nashville is not that we did it alone. The story of Nashville is that we had help but when things got hard, our citizens got down to work and helped themselves, and helped each other.

FARMER: The tornado outbreak this week could bump the 2010 flood but so far, its the most costly disaster since Craig Fugate became FEMA administrator. The response, he says, was also one of the most effective.

Mr. CRAIG FUGATE (Administrator, FEMA): Ultimately, we point to what happened in Tennessee as what a good response looks like.

FARMER: Fugate says local groups got to work so quickly, they made the flood damage seem less extensive than it was. In reality, the Cumberland River had washed through the states largest hotel, filled the ground floors of Nashvilles ornate symphony hall, and driven thousands to emergency shelters.

But Fugate says its unfair to compare one disaster to another.

Mr. FUGATE: Quite honestly, in areas of Katrina, some of that initial response were volunteer and faith-based and community-based organizations doing what they could in a pocket. But maybe people didnt realize that.

(Soundbite of machinery)

Unidentified Man: Good. Were all set.

FARMER: A year later, volunteers are still rebuilding. Terry Rappuhn lines up crews for Nashvilles Westminster Presbyterian Church. Increasingly, she says, theyre coming from out of state.

Ms. TERRY RAPPUHN (Owner, Rappuhn Consulting): There comes a time when people just become tired. And so weve had 1,500 people come to stay with us for a week, from all over the country, to help rebuild homes here in Middle Tennessee.

FARMER: A few weeks ago, Debbie Carter drove down with a group from Rochester, New York.

Ms. DEBBIE CARTER (Volunteer): I dont think any community should feel that they've got to go it alone. Thats not what its about.

FARMER: To Carter, We are Nashville means: We Are All Nashville.

For NPR News, Im Blake Farmer.

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