At Thursday’s U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on Tennessee’s historic flood, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers turned to a recently drafted after-action report, owning up to communication errors with the National Weather Service as the disaster unfolded.
But U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, who’s been critical of the Corps’ actions, likened the report to putting a “cheerful face on some really ugly facts” before pointing out some disturbing findings and even a falsehood in the report. In all, he said the Corps acknowledged 27 categories of problems in their self-analysis.
“It’s hard to see how the Corps could give itself any sort of passing grade,” Cooper said.
Gen. John Peabody, commander of the Corps division that includes Nashville, said Corps efforts reduced the Cumberland River’s flood crest in Nashville by approximately five feet, a level of magnitude that could have left the city crippled in certain areas.
Nonetheless, Peabody said the Corps’ standard coordination procedures, specifically with the National Weather Service, proved to be inadequate to the scale of the flood. He said mix-ups between the agencies resulted from, among other factors, confusion over terminology, unstated information requirements and the loss of the Corps’ Internet access.
“These and other factors contributed to the lack of our ability to gain a clear, common operational picture over the weekend [of the flood],” Peabody said. “The Corps has already been implementing some flood-management improvements prior to this event. This flood will cause us to refine and accelerate some of those measures, and to add others.”
Gary Carter, director of weather service’s office of hydrologic development, said the flooding forecast at the Cumberland River was raised “several times” as the rainfall ensued, which added to communication troubles.
“As a result, our team manager, city officials and the public were unable to comprehend how bad the flooding was going to be until it was well underway,” Carter said. “In particular, the devastating levels and extent of the flood inundation was not conveyed in the clearest and most effective manner.”
Despite the admissions, Cooper said the Corps “still has a lot to learn about what happened,” as he exposed a point in the report when the Corps claims MetroCenter flooded, which it never did. But that wasn’t the most troubling part of the report, Cooper said.
“Probably the ugliest things are on page 62 of the report when the Corps admits that on the crucial day, the morning of Sunday, May 2, when an elderly couple in Nashville had already drowned trying to get to church, only then did the National Corps take the flood seriously enough to establish emergency operations,” Cooper said. “As the Corps admits, this key decision happened at least a day, and several lives late.
“The Corps had not read its weather service emails, determined who were essential or non-essential personnel or even established a telephone tree,” Cooper said. “I know Boy Scout troops that are more prepared than this.”
The main point of disagreement at Thursday’s hearings dealt with the role of the Old Hickory Dam. Cooper said the Cumberland River rose 19 feet alone after releasing water from the Old Hickory Dam.
“Nineteen feet is the greater part of the devastating 32-foot rise in the Cumberland River, and anyone hardly knew it was happening,” Cooper said. “The release of such a flood of water from Old Hickory Dam was almost as if a water-bomb were dropped on Nashville.”
But Peabody suggested any mentioning of Old Hickory Dam is misguided. He said the dam is designed primarily for navigation and hydropower, and isn’t equipped to provide flood-storage capacity.
“Any discussion of Old Hickory storing or holding back water in the context of a storm like this simply does not make sense,” Peabody said.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who organized Thursday’s hearing, stayed on this point, asking Peabody what the outcome would have been if Old Hickory Lake had been lowered by one or two feet before the flood. Peabody said the impact would have been minimal.
Testifying before the subcommittee, Mayor Karl Dean recounted Metro’s response to the flood during the first few days of the disaster. Dean said Metro departments were fully prepared, but acknowledged he never heard from the Corps’ on when water from dams would be released.
“While our city [on Monday, May 3] began to quickly prepare for the long road of recovery ahead, the waters of the Cumberland continued to rise,” Dean said. “The cause of this is not for me to comment on or to speculate on. What I do know is that at no time did the Army Corps of Engineers inform us of scheduled water releases from dams upstream.”
Bert Mathews, testifying before senators as chairman of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, said if Davidson County residents had received better flood warnings then businesses would have been spared “hundreds of millions of dollars” worth of losses.
As it is, Mathews, said more than 2,700 Nashville businesses were affected by the flood, which accounted for more than 15,000 jobs. He said 450 Nashville businesses have still not re-opened in the months after May’s devastating flood, and more than 1,500 jobs are unlikely to return.
“The flood has had a recession-like impact,” Mathews said.