Crisis puts Scott Potter in the spotlight

Sunday, May 16, 2010 at 11:45pm

The first of May was supposed to be the day the Potter family hosted friends for a Kentucky Derby viewing party at their Green Hills home.

But the party never happened.

At 11 a.m. that Saturday, Scott Potter — husband, father of three and director of Metro Water Services — canceled the gathering after learning of localized flooding brought on by the day’s torrential downpours. He spent the day monitoring the situation with other water experts, returned home around 11 p.m. and went to sleep still not anticipating the real crisis that would put him and his department at center stage.

Early Sunday morning, Potter woke up, picked up his Blackberry and checked the weather. Radar was showing weather-pattern vectors that were perfectly aligned over Nashville. More troubling, he recalled, was that the system didn’t appear to be moving.

“That’s when I started getting concerned,” Potter said. “And over the course of the day, it got progressively worse.”

Forecasts of the Cumberland River’s rising waters rushed in from the National Weather Service on Sunday afternoon. “Forty-five feet, 46, 47 and 48 feet,” Potter said. The river’s floodwaters would rise around Donelson, home of the K.R. Harrington Water Treatment Plant.

By the end of the catastrophic weekend, K.R. Harrington was submerged by floodwater, leaving Nashville with just one treatment plant — Omohundro, which sits across the Cumberland from Shelby Park — to produce the 105 million gallons residents use on a daily basis. In previous years, Metro officials had put together models to measure the city’s water condition in the event one of those plants could break down. But to see those models play out in reality was startling, even to Potter.

“A 1,000-year flood,” he said. “It’s just hard to imagine it actually happening.”

Over the next week, Potter was thrust into the spotlight, taking the podium at a series of hastily arranged news conferences where he relentlessly urged Nashvillians to cut their water consumption in half. With only one plant in operation, Metro was dipping into its reserves at a rapid rate, leaving the city’s reservoirs with, at the low point, just 37 percent of capacity. Initially, the plea didn’t register. Some took the wrong message and started filling bathtubs to prepare for a total loss of water.

“Electricity, when it goes out, it’s a huge inconvenience and people get upset,” Potter said. “But, I think when water gets involved, it affects them emotionally. It’s primal. When people feel their water is at risk, I think it makes them really anxious.”

Changes to come?

Looking back, Potter said he doesn’t know how close Metro was to losing its water supply. “A lot of people ask me that,” he said. “If the river kept coming up, we were at the risk of losing Omohundro.”

In preparation for that doomsday scenario, Potter said the Office of Emergency Management had already been taking steps to bring in bottled water as fast as possible. He called their efforts “heroic.”

In time, the calm but dreadfully serious appeals of Potter paid off. Nashvillians were apparently drinking bottled water, taking fewer showers and building up piles of dirty laundry. Some 10 days after the flood of 2010, Potter pointed to a bar graph on his computer that showed Metro’s water reserves steadily rising as the conservation struggle escalated. By late last week, the city’s reservoirs were filled up to 90 percent capacity.

Conservation wasn’t the only factor at play. Metro had also tapped into the water supplies of the nearby West Wilson, Madison Suburban and Harpeth Valley utility districts, which the city is still partly relying on today. “Freddie Weston, Cindy Ellis, John Brown,” said Potter, making a point to pay recognition to the directors of each district. “Without them, we would not be in the water availability condition that we are right now.”

Repairs to the K.R. Harrington plant will be tedious and take a long time, but crews are making headway, according to Potter. But until it re-opens, he’s asking Nashvillians to continue limiting their use of water, all treated by Omohundro and signed off as safe by the Environmental Protection Agency and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Appearing at a news conference with Mayor Karl Dean on Thursday, the pair urged residents to use about 70 percent of the water they normally would.

Other Metro water facilities damaged by flooding includes the department’s Dry Creek wastewater plant and its biosolids center. Potter said he doesn’t know what the total dollar figure will be for the department’s repairs. Metro Finance Director Richard Riebeling has said he expects the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for 75 percent of Metro’s entire public infrastructure damages, with Metro fronting about 12.5 percent of costs.

After the K.R. Harrington is online and functioning, and once the mayhem following Nashville’s flood crisis subsides, Potter plans to sit down with others and review what the department did right and wrong as the emergency unfolded.

Already, one larger question is obvious: Is it wise for a city of Nashville’s size to rely on only two water treatment plants — one, Omohundro, built in 1889; and the other, K.R. Harrington, constructed in 1978?

A Metro study commissioned earlier this year found the department is supplying adequate water capacity.

“Do you design cities for 1,000-year events?” Potter said. “That’s the question. But we’re going to look at that: To what degree do you design a city?”

As Nashville embarks on a multi-billion dollar rebuilding project, Potter, always straightforward and cool in his approach, cringed at the thought of a story focused on him. “I’m working no harder than anyone in Metro water or the Metro government,” he said — repeatedly.

3 Comments on this post:

By: JohnGalt on 5/17/10 at 7:47

Potter was the epitome of calm, cool and collected. He had his, and the department's, act together.

Question though: In aerial views of the flooded plant we see huge circular pools and other assorted holding areas which don't seem to be at the Omohundro plant. What's up with that?

By: may not on 5/17/10 at 8:19

To each his own, I guess. To me, Potter repeatedly came off as arrogant and a bit of a self-appointed "Al Haig" type. At some point I see him before the Council and/or ratepayers begging for more money. Hope he chills the attitude a bit before he hits that wall.

By: dogmrb on 5/17/10 at 2:53

I don't know the guy but I think he's done a remarkable job in an unprededented disaster for Nashville. He just seemed very serious and wanted to convey to the public the depth of the crisis which he did quite effectively.