Flood Waters Claim Lives, Property In Tenn.

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Guest

Nina Cardona, WPLN host of All Things Considered

Torrential rains swamped Nashville and other parts of Tenn., as well as two neighboring states. Thousands of people fled rising water and at least 29 people died. Rescuers continue to search for survivors, but fear that more bodies will be recovered as waters recede from the Nashville area.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

A record-breaking storm hit middle Tennessee over the weekend, dumping more than 13 inches of rain and causing massive flooding from the Cumberland River. Eighteen people are dead in Tennessee, at least 11 others in surrounding states. The flood has submerged parts of Nashville's historic downtown, where hundreds of residents had to be rescued and thousands more have fled. And while the river is cresting, flood-damaged property is feared to be in the hundreds of millions.

If you've been caught in the path of these floods, tell us your story. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Nina Cardona is host of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED at member station WPLN in Nashville, Tennessee. She joins us on the line from Nashville. Welcome to the program.

NINA CARDONA: Thanks. It's good to be here.

ROBERTS: We've seen aerial pictures of the flooded area. Are there signs that the river has crested and the floods are draining?

CARDONA: Yeah. Officials do say that the river crested last night. It does seem to be receding. You know, it's hard to say, but in certain areas, certainly we do see dramatic differences even in the level of water. There was - one of the tributaries to the Cumberland River, called Richland Creek, is near where I live. On Sunday, it was over its bounds by far. They were doing water rescues all through that area.

Yesterday, I was able to drive through it. I was able to drive right over the creek and look down on it. And that's receded all the way down into its banks, which is really promising.

ROBERTS: We have an email from Marie in Ashland City, Tennessee, who says: We have been watching the Cumberland River rise since it began raining on Saturday. Having lived through another devastating flood in 1972 on the East Coast, I learned that often, the worst flooding comes long after the rain stops. It should be emphasized that the waters will continue to rise. Many folks refuse to leave their homes, or even move their cars to higher ground.

Even though the rain stopped late Sunday, pent-up dam water was released yesterday and compounded the problem. With floods come debris, and there are bags of trash and gas cans and playground equipment, Dumpsters, 53-foot trailers and propane tanks floating in unlikely places - a huge mess.

CARDONA: That's right. And we are being reminded, over and over again, that this isn't just rainwater. I mean, this is a flood that's caused by the rain. It's caused by a tremendous amount of rain doubling - pretty much - our record, for two days. It's a 500-year flood. It's incredible, but it's not just the water. It's everything that was in your neighbor's garage, basically, is in this water - possibly sewage. And you know, it stinks. It smells very bad. So who knows what is in this water.

We're also seeing fires from houses where perhaps the electric lines -the electricity had not been cut and it falls into the water, and then something catches on fire. Or even if, say, a water heater, a gas-powered water heater falls over, that pilot light still is lit and something has spilled in the garage. You know, a fire starts, and they can't necessarily really reach these fires and get them out. That's a real concern going forward, especially in these areas that are - where the people have evacuated and nobody's there to know that a fire started until it's too late.

ROBERTS: Well, talk about adding insult to injury. You'd think one thing a flood would protect you from would be flames.

CARDONA: Right. We saw just tremendous images yesterday from one home that was - I mean, just raging flames, I don't know how high. I mean, you could almost not even see the house, the flames were so huge. And this is a house that had water halfway up the first floor.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Jim in Nashville. Jim, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JIM (Caller): Yeah. Hi. How's it going?

ROBERTS: Good, how are you?

JIM: I'm doing all right. Things were very bad. I actually saw a portable - from the high school I attended - floating down the interstate on Saturday night in about 6 feet of water.

ROBERTS: A portable classroom?

JIM: Yeah. A portable - like a trailer. Things are really bad. And what's crazy is that - the worse part is that these people whose homes were flooded, they don't - most of them won't have flood insurance because these are not people that live by a river or anything. These are just people that live near, you know, small creeks that got this bad from all this record rainfall. It's really terrible.

CARDONA: And - it's - there is a lot of that, where the creeks flooded first and overflowed in places that usually never flood. Now those creeks are - draining down - but they're draining down into the Cumberland River. And it can't take it. It's just more than it can take. We also have the issue of our water quality. There are some counties around here where the water treatment plants are - have been inundated, and it's just not safe to drink the water.

Luckily, most of those places are small enough that tankers of water coming in are enough to really help them out. Here in metro, we have two water treatment facilities. One of them is flooded completely. It is totally unusable. The other one is pumping away as fast as it can. But we have - between last night and this morning, officials say the water reserves were depleted by 15 percent. And people are being asked to only use about half as much water as they usually do since we are at half capacity for creating clean water. But it looks like we haven't actually reached that conservation target yet. So those reserves are going down fast. And hopefully, we will be able to keep safe water. But there's a real worry that we will soon be diminished to boiled or bottled only.

ROBERTS: And are you feeling like you're sort of still in the thick of the emergency, and just dealing with every minute as it comes? Or have you kind of turned that corner on to sort of looking ahead, and how are we going to pay for this and how are we going to clean it up?

CARDONA: Well, it's still in that transition. The mayor today announced, you know, we are done with recovery. We're into assessment. And - we're done with response, were into recovery. But at the same time, crews are still out there. They're looking to see if they can find people in houses. They're still looking to see if they can find dead bodies. There is still an awful lot of that initial response going on.

It is still too soon to really have much of an idea about monetary cleanup, especially for homes. About 10 percent of Davidson(ph) County has been assessed. I don't know in terms of how much has been assessed in surrounding counties. But that's only 10 percent. There's a lot of assessment still left to be done before we can even begin to know how much this is going to cost to clean up.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Elizabeth(ph) in Franklin, Tennessee. Elizabeth, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ELIZABETH (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon.

ROBERTS: You, too.

ELIZABETH: Well, I - actually, my husband and I were grateful enough that our house was fine. But we were surrounded on all sides by neighbors whose houses were flooded, people that had to - the National Guard had to come in with boats and save people out of their homes.

And actually, today, my husband and my mom - unfortunately, I had to go to work. But my husband and my mom were at one of our very good friend's house, who also did not have flood insurance. Floods went all the way they got to everything except their attic. And they were just going through, cleaning things out, ripping out carpets, floorboards, drywall, everything. So - and you know, this is the case with everyone in their neighborhood, you know, hundreds and thousands of homes across the mid-state are going through the same thing.

CARDONA: It's important to note, too, that - there has been very, very -so much development, a lot of people moving into middle Tennessee in the last few years. We've had a real building boom in the last 10, 15 years. And a lot of these newer, massive developments are in areas that were, you know - used to be the places that flooded. And there are things that have been put into place that normally would take care of that, but these are massive developments that are under water.

We're also the kind of place that there's a lot of hills and a lot of little valleys - or we like to call them hollers(ph) around here. And those hollers are full of water. And those hills are islands now. So it's - it varies from place to place. There is a tremendous amount of variety trying to go around and figure out who is under water; who is safe; who is safe but they don't have electricity, and they don't have any way out of their house, and they might be running out of food.

ROBERTS: And when you start looking at, you know, long-term recovery, not only the financial and health aspects, is - has the tourist attractions in Nashville taken a hit? Is this something that's likely to have an economic impact going forward?

CARDONA: Well, you know, it's still too early to say. But we do know that one of our largest hotels, which is also a massive conference center, the Opryland Hotel, the Gaylord Opryland Resort, they have had to evacuate 1,500 people this weekend. And now they're saying that it's going to be several months before they can reopen. They're estimating $50 million worth of damage to their facility alone. They usually make about $60 million a quarter. So, you know, if it takes them a couple of months, they're going to be out by almost as much as - in terms of income, by as much as this tourist money that usually is coming in and won't be able to because they're closed. Well, it's going to be a very large amount of money there.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Kristen(ph) in Nashville. Kristen, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

KRISTEN (Caller): Thank you. I am actually a home health speech therapist. So I've got an interesting perspective today, having to drive around Nashville and all the outlying areas to see my patients. Just kind of seeing the devastation firsthand, it's just - the curbsides are just filled with carpeting, appliances, furniture, baby cribs, anything you can imagine that, you know, the water has gotten damaged. Just trying to get a hold of a lot of our elderly patients that have been in areas that have been evacuated - it's been hectic the last 24 hours, trying to get in touch with people and seeing everything curbside.

ROBERTS: Have you been able to get around town?

KRISTEN: Somewhat. I actually am out of the actual Nashville south area. So I avoided seeing my patients that live in Bellevue today, which has been the hardest hit. Even - still trying to get a hold of a couple of them. So I've been in Brentwood and Franklin and Nashville, and I have been able to get around pretty well. There's a lot of debris in the road, but a lot of the roads are open, where I've been.

ROBERTS: Kristen, thanks for your call.

KIRSTEN: No problem.

ROBERTS: Again, once sort of the initial danger has passed, you just start thinking about the unspeakable mess.

CARDONA: Yeah.

ROBERTS: I mean, it's just going to be a mess for a long time.

CARDONA: We're seeing, you know, kind of peeks at what it's going to be in the future in a lot of these places, in the areas where the water has receded already, areas where the water has seeped under the pavement and just torn it into pieces, places where - one thing that I saw at that creek that I mentioned earlier, that is near where I live, that had far out-flowed its banks, there was a ton of flooding and now it's receded. Well, it was also near an interstate construction project. And there are - there were just signs littered in the creek - construction, you know, the roadwork ahead signs, things of that nature, just everywhere. There was a truck that had fallen off of a bridge into that creek.

We're going to see that throughout, repeated all over the middle Tennessee area. And just to emphasize, this is not just Nashville. This is the surrounding counties and the counties that surround them as well. There's a very large swath of land that just couldn't handle this water.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And obviously, Nina Cardona, we're reaching you on the phone, not in the studios of WPLN. Have you been able to work?

CARDONA: Well, we have not had a person in the building on the air since Saturday night. Weve been on automation because our station is very close to a levee on the Cumberland River - a levee that was showing signs of some drainage that shouldn't be there, some soil damage around it. And so they evacuated that entire office park. And we just got word that two people from the station have gone in and refilled the generator. But that's all that they've allowed us to do, is to cart some diesel fuel in by hand. We can't get a tanker truck back there, either.

And so we're just - all of our reporters are just out wherever we can be. We're filing online, but we can't put any local content on the air at the moment.

ROBERTS: And in addition to everything else, there was supposed to be a primary election today, right?

CARDONA: Yes, there was. No word yet on exactly when that's going to happen. That's just very quietly been set aside. We'll figure that out when the time comes. But yeah, today was supposed to be election day. And I should also note, too, the area where the station is, that's also where the mid-state's main hub for the food bank is.

We have a lot of state offices with very sensitive information that are around in that area. We've - the gas company office is right down the street from us and other - several communications companies are in the same area. So a lot of impact just from that one area. And they still have not let people back in. The waters are receding; the levee does seem to be holding. But it's still flooded in that area.

ROBERTS: Do you have any word of when they'll let you back in?

CARDONA: Well, we know that they're going to evaluate the levee again tonight, and they're going to evaluate the levee first thing in the morning. We've heard rumors that they might start letting some personnel in as early as this evening. It might be tomorrow; we're not quite sure.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Moira(ph) in Nashville, Tennessee. Moira, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Moira (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

ROBERTS: Sure - good. How are you?

MOIRA: Good. Thank you. Thank goodness the rain is gone and the sun is shining.

ROBERTS: Oh, yeah. I'm glad to hear it. How is everything in your neighborhood?

MOIRA: Well, I - like some of the other listeners, I was very lucky. We had just a couple of small leaks in our living room. But some friends of mine, you know, this is a music town and there - well, the one person I know, all of his equipment was compromised. He - he's a collector of old amplifiers and guitars and specialized microphone, can never be replaced. I mean, there's no money or currency that could replace them. It's taken him a lifetime to put that information, that electronic information...

ROBERTS: Moira, we've lost you. But Nina Cardona, I didn't even think about that, that the havoc this could wreak on the country music recording industry.

CARDONA: Right. And this is a kind of town where everybody knows somebody with a home studio.

ROBERTS: Right.

CARDONA: Everybody does. And a lot of times, they're in basements. There is a tremendous possibility for real damage to that industry. And we just don't know yet. We just don't know. It's telling, though, you know, the images that we see of people who are coming out of the water rescues. And most of them have a bag with a few things. Who knows what has been left back at the - that home that is now just gone.

ROBERTS: Clay(ph) in Nashville, Tennessee joins us now. Clay, how are you doing?

CLAY (Caller): Fine. Fine.

ROBERTS: How's everything in your neighborhood?

CLAY: Well, it's - I was on the higher side of the street. I live on a small street that runs parallel to a creek that feeds into Richmond Creek, that was referred to earlier. And I'm right now in a line of pickup tricks - probably about 30 or 40 trucks, as I can tell - and we are all bringing debris that we've hauled out of our basements and out of first floors, in many cases. And we had it a lot better than many of my neighbors.

ROBERTS: Where are you taking it?

CLAY: There's a dump - they're taking debris for $5 a load. It's metro a national government dump. And so, were...

ROBERTS: Clay, yeah. Thanks for your call. Nina Cardona, I imagine pickup trucks full of debris are going to be a pretty regular sight around there for a while.

CARDONA: Right. I definitely noticed that today, as I was coming in here to the - where I am now. I saw large trucks full of just, who knows what was in them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CARDONA: Just all over the place. That was kind of almost the main traffic on some of the surface streets. People - you see people out in their yards, cleaning up what they can, setting up the piles now on the street for pickup. The city will be coming through and picking up, at least in Davidson County. I'm not sure how that's going to work out on some of the surrounding areas.

ROBERTS: Well, we...

CARDONA: A lot of cleanup going on.

ROBERTS: We've got a hopeful note here from Brian(ph), in Nashville who says: I must say, our emergency responders and volunteers have truly stepped up in a huge way. The fact that everyone is banded together really makes me believe I will live here for the rest of my life.

Nina Cardona, thank you so much for joining us. I hope things dry out there soon.

CARDONA: Thank you very much.

ROBERTS: Nina Cardona is host of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED at member station WPLN in Nashville, Tennessee.

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