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Could Tennessee's Flooding Have Been Prevented?

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Could Tennessee's Flooding Have Been Prevented?

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Could Tennessee's Flooding Have Been Prevented?

Could Tennessee's Flooding Have Been Prevented?

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In rain-soaked Tennessee, volunteers have become the backbone of the flood cleanup, and spirits are high. The reality of how much the damage is going to cost is setting in. People are asking if the Army Corps of Engineers could have prevented some of the flooding along the Cumberland River.


The image of flooding in Tennessee is no longer water nipping at rooflines. Now it's soggy furniture and dripping drywall piled up outside thousands of homes and businesses. Volunteers have fanned out to do much of the cleanup work. And people are questioning whether some of the flooding could've been prevented. From member station WPLN in Nashville, Blake Farmer reports.

BLAKE FARMER: John Gilreath owns Golden Eagle Jewelry in Clarksville, where his sales staff usually peddles diamonds and Rolexes. Today they're shoveling soggy drywall into wheelbarrows and trying to salvage the merchandise. The jewelry store itself will have to be gutted. The gold and rubies can be saved, Gilreath says, which is why he's armed and makes no attempt to conceal the black revolver strapped to his waist.

Many cleaning up along the Cumberland River with Gilreath wonder whether the Army Corps of Engineers could have prevented some of the damage caused by two days of record rainfall. The agency controls the flow of water from upstream dams.

Mr. JOHN GILREATH (Owner, Golden Eagle Jewelry): I think any way you slice it, somebody got flooded, either upstream or downstream. And we just happened to be downstream, so we got screwed the most, I think.

FARMER: Officials with the Corps of Engineers say they actually helped prevent more flooding. Still, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander has requested a congressional hearing. Governor Phil Bredesen says the Corps could've better communicated plans for releasing water, which ultimately flooded hundreds of riverside businesses now looking for financial help.

Gilreath, the jewelry store owner, has only been offered a low interest loan.

Mr. GILREATH: I'm just mad as hell about it all. It just is beyond belief that you can live in a country that writes checks for everybody but yet when I'm in deep trouble, and I'm one of the guys that has paid the bills all my life, there are no grants for me.

FARMER: Some 23,000 people have applied for those federal grants. Kay Gupton(ph) is one of many who had no flood insurance and needs the assistance. She lives in the aptly named River Plantation neighborhood, where flood waters were blamed for three of the states' two dozen deaths. Gupton was trying to get some hired help to clean out her condo, but they never showed up. Volunteers beat them to it.

Ms. KAY GUPTON: I guess those people are the ones you can really count on, the ones whose hearts say I need to do this. As opposed to whose pocketbook says, oh, somebody up there is easier to get to than this one, I'll do them.

FARMER: Volunteers are taking down the last of Gupton's kitchen cabinets, and they're cutting out all the drywall and carpet. More than 10,000 people have already put in time with the agency Hands on Nashville, which has gotten praise from federal officials touring the damage. The volunteer figures don't count the churches.

Mr. JOHN BOTTOM (Tusculum�Hills Baptist Church): I'm John Bottom. We're from Tusculum�Hills Baptists Church.

FARMER: Bottom has traveled the globe with his church's disaster relief team and worked close to home, just not usually this close.

Mr. BOTTOM: We respond to disasters from the Gulf to Missouri, wherever we need to. It just happens this time it's in our community and our church members that we're helping.

FARMER: What's the difference in being in your own backyard?

Mr. BOTTOM: Not any. It all needs doing.

FARMER: There's still plenty that needs doing, as initial damage estimates in Nashville alone surpass $1.5 billion. Some are showing support not just by volunteering. So far more than 4,000 people from as far away as South Korea have helped the rebuilding effort by purchasing t-shirts that say We Are Nashville.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer.

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