At 5:52 p.m. last Tuesday, still 8 minutes before a question-and-answer session with Metro and federal officials at Bellevue Middle School was scheduled to begin, the bleachers inside the school’s gym were filled to near capacity. Three minutes later, they had run out of bleacher space. People were lining up the chairs from the cafeteria along the back of the gym. By 6 p.m., attendants were hauling in folding chairs, the line of which pushed all the way up to the WSMV-TV camera at the midcourt line.
“We’re pretty overwhelmed with the crowd,” said Sherri Weiner, president of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce, into the microphone as the meeting finally began at 6:12 p.m. A large crowd should perhaps have been expected in Bellevue, where, only a few minutes’ drive away, the River Plantation condo development looked like a combination of Chernobyl and the rear lot of a Walmart.
The overriding theme of the meeting, which featured officials from various Metro departments, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration, seemed to be: You’re going to have to ask the codes department. Not sure whether you need to replace your wiring? Ask codes. Do you need to build a firewall now? Codes. Even Bill Rauch from FEMA had this to say when asked about home inspections: “Probably the most important inspection is codes.”
The Metro Department of Codes and Building Safety is, after all, going to make the most important call for thousands of Nashvillians whose homes and businesses have been touched by the flood: whether those buildings will be able to stay at all, and, ultimately, whether the city will soon be filled with giant grassy gaps where people used to live.
As of this writing, Metro government identified 9,300 property parcels that have seen some flood damage. They have yet to complete an inventory of publicly owned buildings. FEMA approved disaster relief funds for 4,400 people statewide (Davidson County-specific numbers were unavailable), with 14,000 more requests to go.
As for how many of those structures will be razed, it’s still a bit early to say, officials with Metro government offered.
Residents not sure
That has left some residents, owners and other interested parties to come up with their own answers for now.
Samuel Woods’ first-floor apartment in Chestnut Hill was flooded up to his knees, and he had to drag most of its contents out to the corner for collection. But he and his neighbors seemed confident that his and other nearby buildings, mostly constructed of concrete, would continue to stand.
A bit down Second Avenue, Harold Grove, building manager and general contractor for the Creekside Apartments, the first floor of which had flooded to about 4 feet and was temporarily unlivable, said the same thing.
“We had to tear out the first couple feet of drywall on the first floor. It was covering concrete walls, though” he said, adding, “We’d just gotten done remodeling this place.”
Over in the west Nashville neighborhood the Nations, Kristi Riggan wasn’t nearly so optimistic. Her corner of the neighborhood was devastated when the Richland Creek crested on Sunday, May 2, turning Delray Drive into a river. Police still have parts of Delray closed to nonresidents. On Riggan’s block, nearly every house, including hers, has been stripped of siding, leaving only the water-damaged wooden shells.
“I might rebuild it if I get the permission,” she said, noting that she has flood insurance. “They’re talking about tearing everything on this side of the street down.”
She said she heard that information from a neighbor who works for Metro government. According to Bill Penn, assistant director of the property sandards division of Metro codes, that isn’t the case — at least not yet.
“We have not placed any structures damaged by the flood on the demolition list,” nor have they put out a request for proposals from demolition contractors, Penn wrote to The City Paper in an email last week. “People are still trying to assess the full extent of the damage themselves. It will take some time for all of this to come together.”
A long, laborious process
John Riggs is familiar with how arduous that process of coming together can be. Last year, he was hired as an assistant manager in the Code Enforcement Division for the city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His job was to head up the city’s demolition project for homes damaged by the flood of 2008, when the Cedar River rose 13 feet higher than had ever been recorded. When the waters receded, more than 7,000 parcels — fewer than the 9,300 and counting here — had been damaged. About 1,000 were put on the demolition list. Twenty-three months later, about 300 have come down.
“It’s a logistics nightmare,” Riggs said, explaining the process by which that city got from damage assessment, where Nashville is now, to teardown, which may be a ways off here.
First were the inspections and the inventorying, making sure to record everything very carefully for FEMA. (“FEMA’s biggest thing from cradle to grave is documentation,” Riggs said.)
Then the city established a demolition task force, hired him (at that point, a year after the flood), and began categorizing: The first was structures that sustained only minor damage. Riggs came in on the next two: structures that perhaps needed to be torn down in the future, and homes that needed to be torn down immediately.
The latter, he explained, was made up of mostly houses that had sustained such serious damage that they were in imminent danger of collapsing.
“The ones that are unsafe, are just blatantly unsafe, we had to take those down,” he said. “Those are immediate safety threats.”
The other category — houses that may need to be demolished at some point — is harder to define, he said. Usually, the issue is environmental damage.
“Those are buildings that had developed a mold situation and had become too hazardous to repair. Some of them had a lot of chemicals floating around in them. Refrigerators were underwater,” he said. “You’d be shocked what kind of everyday items become a hazard in a disaster situation.”
He said even in homes with serious environmental damage, homeowners were allowed by the City Council to attempt to rebuild.
But this, like demolition, is also a logistics nightmare. Houses must be brought back up to code. Older houses must have asbestos removed. In some cases, especially for the uninsured, costs soared to tens of thousands of dollars or more.
“Some people who chose to let us demolish just couldn’t afford it. When you get 10 feet of water in your house, that’s a big chunk of change,” Riggs said. “For some, it was just that the homeowner didn’t want to deal with it.”