Retrospective on May 2010 Flood

debris in beech bend with people in river bank

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10 Years After the Historic May 2010 Flood

“The Waterway Flood Recovery Project:  2010-2012 and Embracing the New Normal of More Extreme Weather”

Retrospective by Dorene Bolze, President and CEO

April 30, 2020

See our Water Flood Recovery Project page for details and photos.

It is the 10th anniversary of the historic May 2010 flood that hit the greater Nashville region and swamped the entire Harpeth River system.   For the many of us who were here and experienced this tragic and devastating disaster, it is hard to convey the enormity of it to people who weren’t here.  Now there are two current disasters (the March tornadoes, and the global COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home emergency) that prevent the greater Nashville and middle Tennessee communities from coming together to honor the heroic efforts of so many people that “rose” to the occasion back in May 2010.    

But the themes are the same then as they are now.  It took incredible effort by people from all walks of life to pull together to solve immediate problems that put people’s lives and futures at risk.  It is vital to put solutions in place that can prevent future devastation of people’s livelihoods, economies, and vital natural systems by rebuilding resilience into our communities and lifestyles to be able to handle the more extreme weather and climatic conditions that we all now face. 

The May 2010 Flood Set New Records:  The Entire Harpeth River was Overwhelmed 

For anyone living in the greater Nashville region May 1-3, the back-to-back recording breaking torrential rains caused catastrophic flooding that few had experienced.   The Nashville region experienced its new all-time rainiest day (Saturday May 1) and third rainiest day (Sunday May 2) on back-to- back days, according to the Nashville weather Service based on records going back to the 1870s.  13.57 inches of rain fell between May 1-2, a new record that over DOUBLED the previous record of 6.68 inches. 

Rivers and creeks in the region flooded at different times and sometimes more than once.   The entire Harpeth River was overwhelmed by the flood storm from the headwaters in Eagleville, in Rutherford county, through Franklin and Williamson County, the Bellevue Area in Nashville, and through the heart of Cheatham County.  Flooding along the entire Harpeth River broke the previous flood record set in 1948 at all 3 flood gage measuring stations.  In downtown Franklin, the flood crested at 35.32 feet, a few inches over 35.14 feet.  The dramatic increase was seen downriver in Nashville and Kingston Springs, Cheatham County, where flood waters washed away both measuring stations where data has been collected since 1920.  High water marks studied by the US Geological Survey show that the flood levels in Bellevue were 33.32 feet– almost 9 feet over the record!  In Kingston Springs flood waters crested at 46 feet, which is 14 feet higher than the 1948 record!   

Flash flooding in creeks like Mill Creek at I-24, the West Harpeth in Leiper’s Fork, and along the Harpeth happened on Saturday and Sunday, while the Cumberland River flood raise began later as the rain moved east.   The Cumberland River did not crest downtown until Monday, May 3, at 6pm.   The flood level of 51.86 feet was the highest level recorded since the Cumberland River dam system was built in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The previous record was 47.6 feet on March 15, 1975. Flood stage is 40 feet. 

The devastation and loss of life across the entire length of the Harpeth was driven by the incredible volume and intensity of the rain and flood waters.  There were 4 fatalities just on the Harpeth and over $480,000 million in direct economic damages, according to the Army Corps of Engineer’s 2012 Harpeth River Reconnaissance Study prepared in response to the flood.  The rainstorms turned 4-foot wide streams that are typically only inches deep into gulley washers that overtopped low crossings and swept cars away.  We lost one of our board members in the Leipers Fork area from this flash flooding.  Over the region, storm caused flooding killed 18 people in middle TN and at least 27 in all TN and KY, according to the Tennessean.  

Bellevue, which lies along the State Scenic river section of the Harpeth River, was one of the worst hit areas in Nashville. More than 1000 residents were affected with over 146 homes destroyed, many in River Plantation.  In Cheatham County, about 550 homes were damaged as well as 55 businesses, including A.O. Smith and Wal-Mart, two of the county’s largest employers. The flood was the costliest disaster in the county’s history, causing about $10 million in damage. In Williamson County, 1,500 residential and commercial structures were damaged, causing $100 million in damage. 

Debris was everywhere in the Harpeth and other smaller waterways:  Waterway Flood Recovery Project was launched 

Within a few weeks of the May 2010 flood, Harpeth Conservancy staff conducted assessments along 60 miles of the Harpeth.  Tons of debris from homes, farms, businesses and 1000s of uprooted trees were clogging and completely blocking the river and smaller creeks in the Harpeth and Nashville.  The flood damaged over 11,000 properties and significant debris was littered throughout the waterways.  Small hot tubs, a spinet piano, a wheelbarrow and bicycles were found hanging from trees 10 to 20 feet in the air along the river.  Piles of Styrofoam take-out containers and similar items were swept away from commercial storage areas and piled up around nearby urban creeks.   Without removing most of the flood debris clogging the main Harpeth for miles and miles and in many smaller creeks in the region, flooding and erosion were going to be continued risks for property owners near these debris dams when small rain events inevitably occurred.  Not to mention that the flood debris, including 2x4s with nails, metal siding and other dangerous debris were hazardous for recreational users on the Harpeth which is one of the most highly recreated rivers in the state.   

The Harpeth Conservancy convened a conference call of over 45 people from various state, federal and local agencies, elected officials and nonprofit partners to discuss the options to tackle this huge issue.    The upshot was that emergency federal funding could not be deployed to help with any of this debris since it was not on public property or immediately jeopardizing public infrastructure.  With debris raising health and safety concerns and downed trees leaving gaping holes along the riverbank and massive pile ups across the river, there was no way we weren’t going to tackle removal and re-reforestation efforts. 

With all the dangerous debris littering the Harpeth, Richland Creek, Mill Creek, Whites Creek, Browns Creek and many small creeks around the region, Harpeth Conservancy took on the challenge to organize the Waterway Flood Recovery Project.  The effort involved tackling the incredible debris and undertaking re-planting along the highly devastated floodplain area, especially in Kingston Springs, where flood waters flattened most of the wooded floodplain along the city’s Burns park, state Harpeth River State Park, and private property.     

Over a 2 and half- year period, 153 tons of debris was removed and over 12,000 tree seedlings planted by thousands of volunteers in over 70 projects (both clean-ups and tree-plantings).    Volunteers from corporate, civic and religious groups from all the country helped to remove 2x4s with nails, metal siding, propane tanks, grills, slides from pools, huge wood debris, and more.   

  In Kingston Springs the Harpeth reversed course as it jumped through Buffalo Gap where I-40 crosses the Harpeth and flowed “uphill” by Harpeth Middle School!  It took teams of volunteers to hand carry out dismantled pieces of 3 houses that were utterly destroyed.   The volunteer army looked like “leaf cutter” ants carrying out debris that heavy equipment couldn’t reach. 

The multiplier effect of a small coordinating team at Harpeth Conservancy was profound 

The summary statistics do not tell the story, the myriad stories of how everyone pulled together.  It is truly incredible that most all of the flood related debris was removed with a volunteer army in just 2 years.  The 2011 Harpeth Conservancy River Steward Awards give a flavor of the variety and depth of effort by so many people, organizations, companies, state legislators, county and city officials, and stormwater and public works departments from Franklin, Williamson County, Nashville, and Cheatham County, Kingston Springs, and Dickson.   

This huge undertaking was managed by a very small staff team at Harpeth Conservancy.  We were lucky to be able to secure funds through our partner, Work Force Essentials, to have 3 coordinators for 6 months.  Mike Cain, our Restoration Program coordinator was awarded the Water Conservationist honor by Tennessee Wildlife Federation in their 2011 Conservation Achievement Awards for his incredible efforts with the Waterway Flood Recovery Project.   

The Waterway Flood Recovery Project would not have launched without the generous and quick support from the Tennessee Emergency Relief Fund of the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.  A total of $72,000 from the fund supported all clean- up work around the Harpeth river in 3 counties and restoration work.  We leveraged a total of $72,000 over the two-year period by 10 times because of the generous support from local businesses and the help of the Franklin and Williamson county departments, Metro Water Services and Metro Public Works.  The local governments were critical partners by providing clean-up equipment and their services to haul away debris that was collected by volunteer projects.    Private waste and recycling haulers and state and local officials in Cheatham County provided funding and their incredible services.   

Our “call-to-arms” to highlight the serious nature of the flood debris in waterways put us in a leadership position as part of the network of entities coordinating to address the huge challenges from the May 2010 Flood.  We conducted two detailed assessments over 200 different sites of all Nashville’s waterways to identify flood debris hot spots and coordinated among local governments and partners how to get these areas addressed since not all of them could be done with volunteer labor. 

We created the Nashville Waterways Recovery and Restoration Project with Impact Nashville, a volunteer outreach program in Mayor Dean’s office, Metro Water Services and Hands on Nashville.  This led to $125,000 from the large federal relief funds to Metro via MDHA that funded the collaboration with other partner groups to clean-up 12 sites per group.  It was a large, coordinated undertaking with strategic support going a very long way! 

The Flood Stripped Bare Some Hard Truths 

On Saturday, May 1, I knew it was going to rain, but I had no idea, like anybody else, that it would become the new rainiest day on record since the 1870s!  I headed to Fairview to the GroWild native plant festival.   It was raining, but it didn’t appear to be that hard.  But by the time I left it was pouring hard! I decided to drive back to Franklin along Pinewood Road up on the ridge line in case the small creeks were swollen.   I popped into the Leipers Creek Market where Pinewood Road and Leipers Creek Road intersect for a snack.    

I was shocked to see the wooden floors were soaked through and people in the parking lot were visibly stunned.  The owner, Senator Jack Johnson was working the store and told me how quickly water rose and flooded the parking lot and street from tiny little Wilkie Branch, a stream about 3 feet wide that no one would really notice.  The flood waters had just receded 15 minutes before I arrived.  He and others described how the West Harpeth and these little streams rose so fast, that flood waters cut off both the northern and southern ways out of Leipers Fork, stranding visitors in the town who were attending a local guitar event.   I spent an hour helping visitors figure out how to get home or to hotels via routes along high ground to avoid flooded areas.  It was clear that few people really knew if their routes crossed creeks and rivers.   

 Now it was clear a flood was in process.  Yet, as I drove into Franklin from Leipers Fork, if I hadn’t known, I would not have thought the area had been flooded just 2 hours beforehand.  It was eerie that way, especially in hindsight to learn that one of our board members had passed away nearby during the flash flooding on a small tributary, similar to Wilkie Branch, in the area.   As I crossed Mack Hatcher bridge over the Harpeth River near Hillsboro road, water was already close to touching underneath the bridge.  That was impressive.   As the torrential rain kept coming, by Sunday it was obvious that a pervasive amount of flooding was in motion across the region.  

As I participated in Nashville’s Unified Flood Preparedness Plan, the Army Corps of Engineers feasibility studies on the Harpeth, and FEMA’s complete update of the entire Harpeth River’s floodplain maps, among other efforts, I came to appreciate the complexity of flooding in this region and how little most people understand it.  Most people think flooding comes from water overflowing a river or creek bank.  But in this region of limestone with its many fissures and underground caves, the land and water are highly inter-connected in a three-dimensional space.  Just think about Mammoth Caves where the Green river flows on the surface and underground through the cave system. Water doesn’t stay in the river as if it is in an impermeable tube.    

Water in rivers and streams are connected to the water in the ground through the cracks in the rocks.  Also, the clay soil becomes a major issue during heavy rain.  Clay soils absorb water slowly, so in a hard rain, in this area, after half an inch of rain your average yard becomes a parking lot!   The intense rain on Saturday on top of rainy April saturated the ground quickly, so rivers flooded even more quickly from the runoff.   The flood water is also heavy and weighs down on the land.  There was so much water and rain that water was literally being pushed out of the ground into basements, and out of fissures along rocky outcrops.  Springs were turned into gushers.  Many people experienced flooding of their homes that were nowhere near a river or creek. 

In downtown Nashville, buildings are constructed into the limestone that defines the flow of the Cumberland River, with the state capitol on the high point of the bluff.  Some buildings downtown had flood waters fill in from the ground versus what most people expect, which is river water rising and flowing into the buildings from the street.  Underground parking garages were flooded with groundwater and some parking levels were even floated upward on the rising groundwater.   Rising river and creek water pushed into stormwater water pipes causing water to pool up in many areas as the rainwater couldn’t drain through the storm drains.   There was nowhere for the rain to go. 

A key lesson learned from the May 2010 Flood was the need for public information tailored to the local creek or river.  Press coverage focused more on the rising Cumberland River while rivers like the Harpeth and Mill Creek flooded a day or two before the ultimate flood levels were reached on the Cumberland downtown.   Metro developed a flood warning system that the public and local press now use to report flooding at a much more localized level, including small streams.   This is the same takeaway lesson from the recent March tornado warnings.  These disasters tend to be very localized.  The tornado warning system in Nashville is now being upgraded to provide warnings in a tighter area versus across the entire county. 

The May 2010 Flood highlighted the need to create more integrated emergency response among the many cities and counties.  One aspect of this we learned was that emergency responders needed specific knowledge on where to get in and out of flooding rivers and more boats and swift water rescue training.  While most people likely know of the Harpeth River Blueway as a series of public access points that have been established over the past 15 years, most do not realize that one priority was to help with emergency response.  The Harpeth River Blueway concept was launched with the Harpeth River State Park, Harpeth Conservancy and TN Scenic Rivers Association to address overcrowding in the Cheatham county area around the park and rescue needs.  The Kingston Springs Volunteer Fire Department developed the concept of signage on bridges and temporary access arrangements with property owners to rescue people lost and injured on the Harpeth.  This concept was integrated around the counties on the Harpeth after the May 2010 Flood.  We participated in a large meeting of Franklin and Williamson county departments to put all the official and unofficial access points into their mapping and systems so each place has an “address” for responders.   

The May 2010 Flood also laid bare what many property owners who are downstream of new developments in high growth areas of Franklin, Brentwood and areas of Nashville already suspected.  That the increased pavement with development on former farmland had ultimately resulted in more water running off into nearby creeks and rivers and causing higher flood waters downstream.   The Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA updated flood maps for the entire Harpeth and much of the Cumberland in the region after the May 2010 Flood.  These revised maps corroborated many people’s experience as 100-year and 500-year floodplain lines were redrawn and many property owners discovered that their homes and/or more of their property were now in the floodplain.   

We need to plan for the future of more extreme climate conditions 

The May 2010 Flood uncovered the problems of little stormwater and flood management in local city zoning, planning and codes prior to the 1980s in the greater Nashville.  Many residences and commercial zones built prior to then are in the floodplain and close to creeks, as discussed in a September 2017 CityLab story. Nashville has become one of several cities recognized nationally for efforts since the May 2010 Flood to establish codes for structures to be built so that the first floor is above flood levels and to have a robust program to buyout repeat flood-prone homes.  Franklin, Williamson county, and many other communities have done this as well since the May 2010 Flood.  According to the June 2019 New York Times story, Nashville has now purchased 400 homes through the voluntary flood buy-out program.  The whole intent is to remove structures from flood waters and rebuild the natural buffers that rivers have to store flood waters.  We are essentially undoing 100 years of flood management that put rivers in straight jackets of dikes and cement channels.   

Unfortunately, across the county, most of the federal funds from FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program are still used to rebuild structures after disasters versus preventing future loss through the buyout program.  To make matters worse, many cities across the country are not ensuring that structures/homes are built and or re-built above flood levels as required for participation in the National Flood Insurance Program.  This April 9, 2019 New York Times story is one of many pointing out that we cannot continue to think we can buy our way out of disasters.  There are not enough funds and it all essentially comes from us, the taxpayer.   

Harpeth Conservancy has worked for 20 years with cities and communities on approaches that manage runoff and provide buffers around streams and rivers to mimic natural processes to reduce the risk of flooding.   For years, streams, creeks and springs were paved over, re-routed or put into ditches.  Paving over the land increases flooding downstream since the land could no longer absorb small rain events.   With a $200,000 grant from the EPA from 2003-2005, Harpeth Conservancy worked with Franklin, Williamson county and two residential developers on local stormwater design approaches that have been adopted and customized around the region.  During the May 2010 Flood, flooding from stormwater was prevalent in older residential and commercial areas not designed with the new approaches as homes and businesses were flooded far from a river or stream.   

Nonetheless, most people do not realize that communities are almost always working in the past because flood and stormwater management is mostly based on the data from what has already occurred.  Cities need to use models that forecast various ranges of scenarios so that development and infrastructure is designed to handle what is coming.  Climate models point to more frequent and more intense rain events, heat, and drought for this region of the country.  Resilient community planning is based on reasonable predictions of the future and working together regionally and not arguing over whether we call it “climate change” or not.  It is here.