Where does the floodwater go?

Sunday, May 9, 2010 at 11:45pm

It was Monday, May 3, when the record rainfall had passed and the flash flooding began to subside.

Nashville was still in rescue mode as the sky cleared and the sun appeared as if just arriving home from a weekend trip to find much of Music City washed out and crippled, if not still submerged.

But even as the sun proclaimed a new beginning, the heart of the city braced for the next wave of flooding as waters from the weekend deluge slowly gathered into — and soon overwhelmed — the city’s gutters. The Cumberland River first jumped its banks Sunday evening as police evacuated First Avenue, and on Monday it crept up Broadway and along the east bank, pushing water back through the stormwater system as if to say “Not so fast.”

As official guesses of just how high the river would crest kept rising, gawkers with rubber necks gathered near Lower Broad and on the bridges spanning the river to watch the big brown flow slowly swallow the city’s economic engine.

While the most serious damage — the kind that costs lives, not dollars — had been done in the city’s neighborhoods, day three of the flood meant a different kind of survival mode for downtown.

As water came up from the storm drains, it seeped into the lower levels of some of the most expensive and important real estate for the city.

Nearly four underground parking levels of The Pinnacle at Symphony Place filled with what senior property manager Kevin Hagan estimated to be 4 million gallons of water.

The Schermerhorn Symphony Center received as much as 25 feet of water in the basement and sub-basement, costing the symphony two Steinway Concert Grand pianos and the pipe organ’s console. The $2.5 million dollar organ is not a complete loss, however, as much of the pipes are at concert hall level, according to spokesman Alan Bostick.

About 4 ½ feet of water leaned on the outside of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, while inside, 5 ½ feet of floodwater filled the mechanical room before reaching the floor of the Ford Theater, according to director Kyle Young.

Across Fifth Avenue, a foot of murky water stood at the event level of Bridgestone Arena, where the Predators would have skated on
a sheet of white ice had they advanced to the second round of the NHL playoffs.

“We know that certainly the flooring, carpeting [and] some woodwork have suffered extensive damage to where it’s got to be replaced,” said Gerry Helper, senior vice president for the Predators.

Helper said workers were able to move some equipment to higher ground, but the battle against the rising water was a losing one.

“It seemed as fast as we were trying to pump it out, more was coming it,” he said.

In efforts to hold off the rising waters and minimize damage downtown, crews started pumping water out of the lower levels of flooded buildings and back into the streets, right back into the stormwater system that overflowed and flooded the buildings in the first place. While the pumping may have bought a little time or a few inches in some cases, it largely was ineffective.

Metro Water Services Director Scott Potter explained that as long as floodwaters were at the buildings’ basement levels, pumping was futile.

“We’ve been trying to go around and explain that to people, and I think they understand it,” Potter said. “People are really upset about their property, and I understand them wanting to de-water it as quickly as they can. They just needed to let the river subside.”

While eventually it became evident that, with storm drains well over capacity, pumping no longer made sense, Hagan said, it was all about surviving with as little costly damage as possible.

“I think everybody that was pumping realized that it was just a recirculation of water, but it was just a matter of trying to stay stable,” he said. “At the point where the water was still coming up, it was a matter of recirculating water just to keep it from getting to certain levels in everybody’s buildings — that’s what it boils down to.”

By Wednesday, over on the east bank, pumping continued in the bottom level of the Juvenile Justice Center, where Juvenile Court Clerk Vic Lineweaver estimated at least 12,000 to 14,000 case files were damaged by water, along with the building’s computer, telephone and electronic systems.

Though not fully operational last Wednesday, necessary operations at the justice center were running, and staffers were answering phones again. But the final word on the files was left unsaid.