With the one-year anniversary of the catastrophic flood that inundated Middle Tennessee upon us, The City Paper sat down with U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper to discuss the disaster. Cooper was sharply critical of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the wake of the flood and has spent considerable time researching how they responded to the storm, and ways to avert future catastrophes through new technology.
CP: Where were you when the storm started?
Jim Cooper: Well, it started raining on Saturday, and I was attending a reception hosted by the Consul-General of Japan in anticipation of the Cherry Blossom Festival. At the time, none of us knew how significant the storm was. I didn’t realize how great the amount of rain was until Sunday morning. I was scheduled to meet a friend for coffee at the Starbucks on Harding at 8 that morning. I did a pretty dumb thing and drove my car through what I thought was a big puddle. It wasn’t till I was in the middle of it that I felt the car lift up off the ground. It was a dumb thing to do, and I am very lucky the car got traction again.
I finally made it to Starbucks, where about four or five people were standing around. The power had just gone out, and Harding was getting worse. It was only later that we found out that in that same area, an elderly couple had died trying to make their way to church. When I eventually made it home, I got on the phone with my staff by 10:30, and we then got on the phone with the White House to discuss federal emergency assistance.
You’ve been critical over the course of the past year of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and their response to the flood. What brought on that concern?
Over the course of Saturday, going into Sunday, the corps had done nothing. They are responsible for the dams on the Cumberland River, and no one was on duty. It wasn’t until 11 p.m. on Sunday night that they realized that their dams were running wide open.
The dams in the area, Percy Priest, Cordell Hull, Old Hickory, etc … none of them are operated for flood control. They are for navigation, specifically river barges. When the flood occurred and when the severity of the rain was understood, the dams still were being operated in a manner for barges and not for the safety of a major city.
Going forward, one idea would be to convert the Cordell Hull dam into a flood control dam instead of a navigation dam. At the least they could paint “NOT FOR FLOOD CONTROL” in giant red letters on the dam, so people in the area know.
Also, I have stated in the past year that I have seen Boy Scouts that were better prepared. The Corps of Engineers had no emergency plan, no phone tree. … One river gauge on the Harpeth was 15 feet too low to be of any use. We have an early warning system for tornadoes and yet nothing for floods.
But wasn’t this a 100-year or 1,000-year flood?
That is a misnomer and causes people to let their guard down when you start calling things 100-year or 1,000-year floods. We had two 100-year floods in 1975, and going back and looking at the photos from that era, you will see that what was then Opryland was very much under water, just as Opry Mills was this time.
Prior to last year’s flood, the 1975 flood was the highest the water has been since dams were built, topping out at 47 feet. In 1929, before the dams were built, we had a flood that topped out at 56 feet. One more foot, frankly a few more inches, and Nashville would have lost its water treatment plant last year, which would have meant living off of bottled water for a couple of months. Also, over the course of a 30-year mortgage, the odds add up, and you have a 26 percent chance of being flooded over the course of the mortgage.
The 100-year flood map is rising; you can expect one- to three-inch increases in the map over 30 years due to development and construction all across the region.
What do you think should be done going forward?
First, we must admit this could happen again. Sadly, it could happen sooner rather than later with development and growth. Changing the purpose of the Cordell Hull dam to have a primary purpose of flood control would assist, as well as not building anything on floodplains.
We should also examine whether the Tennessee Valley Authority could do a better job of managing our river. Yes, I know that agency has some problems as well, but they have a 24-hour-a-day operation and they don’t knock off at night.
Finally, I am anxious to see the third and final report being produced on the flood by the Corps of Engineers. We have seen two already, and it took a lot of work to get them to produce a third and more thorough investigation.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.