The Big Dryout.

From Across Tennessee

May, 2010

The waters are receding. People in places like Nashville, Dyersburg and Millington, plus many other smaller towns are returning to homes and businesses. The news media will be off to the next crisis. And the work begins.

So what happens now? No one can say for sure, but there are the memories of those who have been there who have seen their downtowns flooded.  Downtowns are the soul of the city where most of the most recognizable landmarks, the oldest buildings and a large chunk of the workers all are centered. So a disaster Downtown is a disaster in everyone’s neighborhood.  What is it like after The Big Dryout?  A bit of perspective from those cities hit by downtown flooding may give an idea of what is to be expected.

Had you been walking in downtown Chicago in April, 1992, it would not have looked like a city in a flood crisis. But beneath your feet, sometimes far beneath, water was filling the city.

A leak sprang in the underground tunnels and water from the Chicago River flowed into the tunnels, basement s and subbasements of Chicago.  Kenny Construction was hired for the cleanup of the public portion of the underground while individual businesses took care of their own basements.

“A lot of places were closed two to five weeks,” remembers John Kenny, who was in charge of the project. Literally thousands of pumps helped empty out the water. 

“We also used divers to plug up the leak and inspect the eleven Chicago River crossings to be sure none of the others were leaking,” he remembers.  “It took a week to stop the leak and then another week to pump everything out.” Aside from the estimated 124 million gallons of water, the company had to pump at a slower rate than which they were capable because pumping out too rapidly could have endangered the foundations of some of the buildings.

Fourty seven miles of freight tunnels were affected. An estimated one billion dollars in damage was done. Today Kenny says there are no signs of damage, but lawsuits were being settled as late as 1995. As the dry out began, that is when those at street level began to see evidence of bellow as hoses large and small snaking out of businesses, emptying water from bellow into the storm drains above.

Oregon City, Oregon, like many cities including Nashville, was built on a river. The fast-growing city is located just south of Portland and has a population the Census estimated two years ago at 31,404  - significantly smaller than Nashville but when news hit of downtown flooding, in the Volunteer State, those in the Evergreen State could identify.  “We still talk about it,” says Dan Fowler, who was mayor at the time and also owned eight buildings that were flooded.  The Willamette River flows north from the mountains and fed from the water table, snowmelt and the steady winter rains of the Pacific Northwest. All of those combined in February 1996 to reach a one hundred-year flood. “They call it one hundred year flood but we had a similar one in 1964,” says David Wimmer, who handled the financial aspects of the flood for the city.

 “The mood was one of resolve and neighbor helping neighbor,” Fowler remembers. “It was cleaned up faster because everyone was so willing to help. Within a couple days we were drying out, pulling out carpet and sheet rock. That surprised me how fast that went.” He does not remember anyone just giving up due to the overwhelming task that lay before them.

“We knew for probably at least two or three days ahead of time it was going to flood. We don’t have flash floods here like you do in Tennessee,” Fowler says. 

“From a public works   perspective we are always prepared. We know the lower areas that flood and know to close streets so people would not be endangered,” says Nancy Kraushaar, public works director. “Afterwards we were about a week we were in the flooded area with front end loaders and back hoes and these large dumpsters. We would fill them up and the garbage company.  Fran Shafer – the go to person for public works calls during the flood- was here to respond to the calls and let the crews know where to go. With the crews it’s their call to action. It is what we do.  The crews get passionate about their work it when they have a big project to help people. They take pride in their work and step up to the plate.”

“The government was there to help.” Fowler says. “It’s a real cliché to say government is always bad we have too much of this or too much of that. The public wants help from the neighbors but they also look to government.  We have to remember that when we take pot shots government these are the silent workers who are always there for us there in good times and bad.”

Kraushaar remembers several feet of sediment within the buildings. Backhoes and front-end loaders were used to remove the fluvial deposits into dumpsters that were hauled away by a waste removal companies. 

There were things the city realized later it could have done better. Trying to make lemons out of lemonade, the city saw the flood as a learning opportunity and made changes.  “The road department needed to be a responder but they were a victim,” Fowler says. The problem they had with the road department is the old NIMBY (not in my back yard) dilemma. Everyone wanted the roads department to respond to their neighborhood, but no one wanted it in their neighborhood so the most agreeable land was within the danger zone. 

There was a county office that became unusable when its first floor was inundated. The building is still there, only now it is used for storage with the first floor empty. The county offices were relocated to rental property and ten years after the flood they moved into their own building and removed from the flood plain.

“Tri Cities Service District runs the wastewater service in Oregon City. Floods overwhelmed them. They thought they were above the flood plain but they were not. Now they are doing an upgrade of the site putting it about three feet higher than the FEMA flood plain,” Kraushaar says.

“New constructions are built so there are only garages at lower levels that can be affected by flooding. The buildings are ready for the next ones,” Wimmer says. “We have a fair amount of property on the flood plain vacant or prime for redevelopment.  All the new construction is done with flooding in mind. It has to be done and people get used to it,” says Kraushaar. 

In February since the flooding there is a flood awareness week to keep residents from becoming complacent or forgetful now that fourteen years have passed since their big dry out.  Wimmer remembers the last federal funding coming in to the city about two years after the flood. Building codes, flood awareness and memories are those days legacy.  Fowler estimates it was about five or six months later  the flood of ’96 was no longer the number one topic in the cafés, streets and around the water coolers of Oregon City. 

An urban flash flood in 1981 rushed through the middle of Austin, Texas. Improvements were made including keeping streambeds clear of debris, flood monitoring stations along creeks and the purchase of a row of homes along Shoal Creek which were razed and turned into a neighborhood park. The last casualty of the flood was more than a quarter century later. A community recreational center was severely damaged, but unsalable. Almost six years later it was replaced and the older one remained vacant then it was 2007 when it was finally knocked down. The point- who knows what the legacy will be?      

The impact on Tennessee is still not fully measured. Some building may have to be razed, anyone who has had even small water damage to a hardwood floor knows about wood that warps. There is black mold that may show up as well – the possibilities for destruction are endless, but Kraushaar sees the proverbial silver lining to the rain cloud.

“I think it is when you see the finer parts of nature coming out. It restores your faith in human nature,” she says. “Right now our community is beautiful and awesome again.”

 “Floods are terrible and it is a lot of work and it is a lot a hassle. The routines are changed but only for a period of time. Everyone in our buildings was back in thirty days. It was a lot of work. But it wasn’t the end of as their business or the city as we know it,” Fowler says. “I’m sure they in Nashville are as resilient as we are and they can save their city. They will survive and it will be worth every second of effort.”