For more than four days, many residents of north Nashville waited for the waters to recede. When dry land finally reappeared Wednesday evening and Thursday morning, their prayers were answered.
North Nashville — especially the areas around Tennessee State University, West Hamilton Road, Ted Rhodes Golf Course, Tucker Road, Hummingbird Road and Buena Vista — joined Bellevue, Pennington Bend and Antioch on the list of the city’s hardest-hit areas. About 400 people flocked to Hadley Park Community Center on Wednesday to receive assistance, while hundreds more remained at their homes to face their devastating losses. Since the area wasn’t in a designated flood plain, about 60 percent of the homeowners did not have flood insurance, said Metro Councilman-At-Large Jerry Maynard.
As the murky waters evaporated or returned to the White Creek banks where they belonged, it became immediately clear that their problems hadn’t ended, but had just begun. A new round of prayers began.
Indeed, the flood had masked the damage that lay underneath. On Thursday, the unknown was replaced with the undeniable certainty of their losses of homes, furniture, vehicles, precious family photos and keepsakes. A road remained block by a home that was knocked about 50 feet off of its foundation.
From afar, West Hamilton Road looked like a community garage sale, with residents milling about among their wares or resting in chairs under tents. Their front doors were propped open, as if to warmly beckon visitors. But a closer view showed that the yards and ditches were full of their unsalvageable belongings, and the living rooms behind those front doors were empty except for water removal and cleaning equipment.
As hundreds of families continued moving items from their homes, the family of West Hamilton resident Robert Woods, 74, was at a nearby funeral home, making arrangements for a memorial service in his honor. Woods was swept away in the flood after a failed rescue attempt Sunday.
During the last few nights, many residents have slept on their porches or in their cars, afraid to leave their homes because of potential looting, but aware that their homes weren’t safe. Others stayed with relatives or friends.
Police — on bicycles and in cars — were abundant. A squad car blocked a portion of West Hamilton, allowing local traffic only through in an effort to prevent looky-loos from driving by and taking photos of flood victims as if they were zoo animals. Metro Public Works employees repaired a bridge off West Hamilton on Tucker that had buckled as if there had been an earthquake. An American Red Cross vehicle drove down a side street, while a mobile unit from the United Neighborhood Health Services was parked nearby.
“Today felt much different. Today you could see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Maynard said on Thursday. “Today the waters receded. Today you could see the dry land and people cutting their grass. You literally saw hope.
“They are still hurting, they are still in pain, but they saw that there is hope, and it’s going to get better. It’s just a matter of time. That’s the difference between today and Sunday.”
Community members have always fought everything together, and this week’s flood is no exception, said District 1 Councilman Lonnell Matthews Jr. “[The community] has always come together on various issues, whether it was landfills coming to their area or just different developments they didn’t want. They tried to put warehouse and industrial things over here that weren’t wanted by the community, so they are used to fighting.
“But this is fighting Mother Nature, and it’s a different kind of fight for them. Some people have lost everything, but they have come together and they’re depending on one another to really support each other to get each other through.”
North Nashville is a multi-generational community that had served as a home to some families for half a century or more. “One of the pianists who plays here for us has been in her house since 1969; she is not there,” said the Rev. Harold M. Love Jr. of Saint Paul A.M.E. Church, which is providing food, water, supplies and medical attention to local flood victims. “Her children were raised in that house, celebrations were conducted in that house; guests were entertained in the house, and now she can’t. What do you do? How do you replace memories that you no longer have?
“How do you get back to what is normal unless there is a concerted effort to help facilitate the moving on? Unless there is a concerted effort to assist in dealing with the disruptions, there won’t be a return to normalcy. That is why we say recovery efforts physically may take a year. Emotionally, no one knows.
“What do you do with the woman who is 75 and now has to find a place to live? What do you do with a family who has to now figure out how to rebuild their lives when the insurance company is not going to replace what they’ve lost? Those are the issues we’re dealing with.”
John Phillips, 73, spent much of his life rescuing others in their unexpected time of need. But this time, it’s the retired wrecker service owner and his wife who are in need of assistance. The water rose to within 2 feet of the top of their West Hamilton Road front door, and his vehicle remains in a neighbor’s backyard nearly 200 yards away.
On Thursday, his wife, Carolyn Phillips, 72, sat in front of the home in which she had been trapped by water that was waist-deep outside until a nephew drove over to help. She was surrounded by trash bags that had been packed one beloved item at a time. In an abandoned bookshelf nearby, a John Grisham novel rested next to the Holy Bible, while several stacks of photos and a briefcase full of papers were drying by the side of the house, near an impromptu display of shoes.
“We lost everything,” says Carolyn, a retired Walgreens employee. “What little we have, clothes and stuff, is in the U-Haul. I am just trying to take it one day at a time. I don’t think I’ve processed it yet.
“It’s hard, but by the help of God, we’re going to be OK,” she said. “We’re going to be OK.
“It’s good memories, and then I know it’s just material stuff that can be replaced,” she said. “My life couldn’t have been replaced, so I am just thankful for that. Everything in the house we’ve accumulated during our marriage of 52 years can be replaced. I’m just thankful that I got out alive.”
While Phillips echoed the sentiment expressed by thousands this week, it’s not just an easy cliché for her. She knows about the value of life because John was diagnosed with prostate cancer last summer.
The family couldn’t afford both medical treatments and flood and homeowner’s insurance, so they chose his health and their insurance was canceled. Surgery was successful last summer, but he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a few months ago. “They thought they could do surgery, so they cut him open, but there wasn’t nothing they could do, so they just sewed him back up.”
On Thursday, Carolyn drove him to a radiation treatment. “He said he feels pretty good. We had a flat on our truck, so he’s gone to get that fixed.”
It’s his health that worries her the most. “Because I worry about him. He don’t know how much longer he’ll live, and that has an impact on me,” she said. “We are living with my daughter right now, and she is trying to keep us upbeat.
“I just pray for strength.”
It is strength such as this that will help this community persevere to survive what may the greatest challenge of their lives. While determined to overcome this tragedy, north Nashvillians are battling anger, shock, sadness and frustration. “Here is the truth of the matter: They are angry at the water,” said Love. “But they can’t do anything to the water, so they lash out at elected officials and community leaders.
“People are frustrated because the insurance company doesn’t give them the answer they want to hear. They are frustrated because there isn’t a check in their hand right now. They are frustrated by the process of filling out the applications. They are frustrated because they can’t fix this problem right now.
“For many persons, the water just receded on Wednesday, so we are dealing with the issue of, ‘How do you alleviate the frustration of someone who may not be able to put into words what they feel, cannot verbalize what they are going through, what you can see in their eyes?’ They are trying to make sense out of this.”
Love recalled a conversation with a man who found himself in chest-deep water within 30 minutes of the rain. “How do you deal with that, when in 30 minutes your life is changed? That is enough time for a sitcom. Your life changes in the timeframe of a television show, but your life changes forever. That is what’s frustrating.”
Love noted that north Nashville boasts a wide array of professionals, from doctors and lawyer to preachers and teachers. “You are talking about people who did everything right,” he said. “They went to school, worked their jobs, raised their children and obeyed the laws.
“You can mix them in with those on the other side of town who did the same thing. How frustrating is that, that you did everything right, you played by the rules?”
Like council members Maynard and Matthews, Love has dedicated himself to comforting the community during its time of need. To find inner strength, Love turns to the third chapter of Lamentations in his Bible. “In the beginning of the chapter, Jeremiah is frustrated. He said everything is bad around; this is not working out well, the situation is not good.
“And then he said this: ‘If it had not been for the steadfast love of the Lord, I would have been consumed. Great is thy faithfulness.’
“So we have been put in a good position here. There is a church down the street that has been underwater. But we have been I guess spared for such time to address the needs in this community in these people’s lives.”