A Flood View From My Tennessee Deep Hollow Home

Floodwaters cover a downtown street in Nashville i i

Floodwaters cover the downtown streets and sidewalks in the Lower Broad district of Nashville, Tenn. More than 13 inches of rainfall fell over two days, more than doubling the previous record. Rusty Russell/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Rusty Russell/Getty Images
Floodwaters cover a downtown street in Nashville

Floodwaters cover the downtown streets and sidewalks in the Lower Broad district of Nashville, Tenn. More than 13 inches of rainfall fell over two days, more than doubling the previous record.

Rusty Russell/Getty Images

Bernie Ellis is a public health epidemiologist and farmer who has lived on his 150-acre Tennessee farm since 1969, when he purchased it (at age 19) for $85 an acre.

Saturday afternoon, as the first 11 inches of rain rearranged our roadways, it took me three hours to make it home from Nashville, Tenn. One road after another was blocked with rock slides or flooded too deep to risk driving through or covered with downed trees whose roots just couldn't hold on any longer. After several hours of effort, I made it to my driveway. Or should I say, the entrance to the mini-Grand Canyon that my driveway had become.

I parked my truck at the far end of my farm and made my way through the ravines and gullies that my driveway had become. Some of the "holes" were 5 feet deep, scoured to the bedrock. I got home after dark to find no power in the house and two very confused dogs, soaked to the bone and wanting ever so much to be let inside. I understood — I too wanted some dry place.

That first night, I went to bed early, lulled to sleep by the mountain river that ran just beyond my front porch, thinking that the worst was over.

Oh, how wrong I was.

On Sunday, the rain started again just after dawn. And it did not stop. Hard on my tin roof, the rain came and came and kept coming. Between dawn and early afternoon, an additional 16 inches fell. The ground, already saturated, could do nothing to mediate the force of so much water.

Every new drop of it that fell on Sunday came rushing by my front porch, carrying with it debris that had lined my farm's creek beds for years, now broken loose and on the move. It all seemed so fascinating and otherworldly — until I noticed that some of the debris included my garden watering can and plastic mulch buckets. The stream had breached its creek banks, had flooded my garden and was now working its way toward me.

There is a footbridge across the creek in front of my house that became the next target of my focus to save the familiar. As I watched in amazement, a 60-foot poplar tree that anchored the bank by my garden gave way and lent its creek-bank-scouring force to the flood. That tree quickly wedged against my footbridge, backing up the water (and the force it possessed) behind that bridge, bringing the water level higher and higher into the garden.

Though in retrospect it may not have been wise to walk out on that footbridge with so much force wanting to dislodge it, I took my chainsaw and cut the top one-third of the tree, freeing its main trunk to fall into the flood. As massive as the tree was, I thought it would simply float to the side of the creek. But the water's power was immeasurable and up to the task of removing anything in its way. As soon as the tree was cut loose, its sharp-pointed top faced downstream and, with its 5-foot-wide root ball acting as a sail, that tree shot downstream as if it were a child's summertime scrap-wood boat. That image, of my anchor tree setting sail for the coast, will remain the iconic memory of the flood.

By Sunday afternoon, the falling fury faltered and I could make my way to the main road on foot. There I learned that my little hamlet (Fly, Tenn.) was now all underwater. Logs from the sawmill were scattered across the bottom land and the heavy metal Dumpsters at our local convenience station were lumbering landing craft bouncing into flooded cars and trucks. I learned that a neighbor's dam — holding back a 30-acre lake — had given way. Fortunately for us the Natchez Trace Parkway, built on the highest ridges in the area, remained open as our connection to the outside world. All other roads and many other bridges were no longer, whole sections of asphalt peeled from the ground and gone.

Even as the reality of what had just happened continued to surround us, so did the innate urge to help each other. One close neighbor offered to bring his tractor to pull my truck out of harm's way. When he got a look at my new Grand Canyon driveway, he returned on Monday with his bulldozer and spent several hours returning my driveway to a semblance of its former self (at no charge).

It is now the beginning of the third day post-flood. My water system is still not working, so until it is, I will bathe in the creek and carry drinking water from my spring back to the house. I will rebuild my garden beds and marvel at the newly scoured limestone rock shelves now exposed on my walk down to the spring, my new beachfront property where once underbrush and old fence had stood. I will enjoy the cool air and the clear sky and the resetting of my priorities as only a 500-year flood can do.

Not far away, homes and cars are still underwater and city folk are still coming to realize just what they've lost and how alone they are. Here in my deep hollow home, I am thankful for everything I still have. Not just a roof over my head and drinking water within walking distance. I am thankful for neighbors who reach out, by instinct, to help when help is needed. To be part of a community that is not just a small place on the map, but an island of caring, concerned and competent people here to help each other. Country men and women who will survive.

Here in middle Tennessee, we may have less than we had last week. But the important things — the essential things — still remain. No flood can wash away friendship and the connectedness of life in this close-knit community — it can only polish it to a bright and lasting luster.

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