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Historic is not unprecedented…

June 2, 2010

It’s been interesting to watch the response of some leaders in our city to write off this recent flood event as a once in a lifetime occurrence. In the first weeks I would hear folks talk about it being the proverbial 100 year flood. As we moved further from the day of reckoning, more and more they started talking about it being a 500 year flood event, with even some talking about it as a 1,000 year event. In all cases these folks cautioned against changing policies too much for this event was “historic” and “probably will never happen again.”

It is interesting to me that many of the folks that are most adamant about this are people who are relative newcomers to Nashville, for if you’ve spent more that 10 years here you would know that this event, while historic for sure, is not unprecedented.

Yes, the flood levels in the 2010 floods were higher than they have ever been before, but that isn’t to say that they haven’t been high in the past to the level of causing great damage. The 1979 flood along Mill Creek (just a short 31 years ago) saw damage equally as devastating as this flood in that area, ultimately leading the congregation I now serve to leave their historic building for the high ground where we are now located. I remember that year standing on above the bridge on Old Harding Pike (near what is now River Plantation) and seeing the Harpeth River spread out for miles before me, consuming all in it’s path. No, those flood levels didn’t reach as high as what we experienced a month ago, but they too were historic and led to changes in the way we conduct business.

There is a danger is writing off events as historic for we can tend to think that they will never happen again. And certainly the confluence of weather events leading to the dropping of 13-22 inches of rain in a couple of days was unique and may indeed be a freak anomaly. But, if not the same exact course of events, something else will come along, a hurricane or some byproduct of global warming which leads the rains to fall and the rivers to rise. It’s happened before. It will happen again. We simply need to acknowledge this.

This isn’t to say that we should take draconian measures to ensure that no home or business is ever put in harms way again.  There is acceptable risk, based on past experiences, which leads one to take a reasonable chance (always with the knowledge that anomalies exist). However, there is also common sense, the recognition that building a subdivision within yards of the flood way, along the river bottom downstream of a dam is probably not a smart thing to do. Common sense suggests that those places that have flooded again, and again, and again are probably not good locations for human habitation and one should think long and hard about trying to rebuild there once more. The FEMA programs that place guidelines on rebuilding in flood plains and discourage rebuilding in flood ways are a federally mandated version of common sense, an attempt to get folks to know that historic is not unprecedented.

City fathers and mothers, as you look at things such as the building of the new West Precinct on land that flooded significantly last month, don’t forget your common sense. Yes indeed this flood was historic by most every measure, but it certainly isn’t unprecedented. The flood waters came and then went away. Some time again they will come back.

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