A Flood Story – Southeast Nashville Recovery

This Sunday at 7 p.m. the folks from Extreme Home Makeover will tell the story of the Nashville floods from the perspective of my good friends at the Lighthouse Christian Fellowship. How well I remember in the early hours of our disaster sitting 800 yards from the swollen Mill Creek and watching the Hope House, a part of the Lighthouse complex that I had been in many times float downstream. I was pleased when Lighthouse found out that their destroyed preschool building would be rebuilt, and had the chance to be on-site a couple of times during the build. But as Headmaster Brian Sweatt and others will tell you, the story that will air on Sunday isn’t the complete story of what happened in those early days, nor completely reflects the work of what is now known as Southeast Nashville Recovery, the grass roots based relief and rebuilding organization that has cleaned out hundreds of homes, rebuilt over 35, and most importantly demonstrated that church people of diverse backgrounds can indeed work together effectively to share God’s love with their neighbors. This is the story from my view, recognizing that it isn’t complete either, but hopefully will add to the legend of the 2010 floods.

On Saturday, May 1, the rains came and I had a uneasy feeling that Mill Creek would be out of the banks.  I had spent seven years as the pastor of the Antioch United Methodist Church, and during that time had learned the story of the previous 500 year floods in the late 1970’s. I remembered those days well, looking out on The Harpeth river of my youth and seeing it stretch for miles in flood, and the news stories about the flooding along Mill Creek. When I moved to Antioch I found our church on top of the highest hill in the area in a 1980’s era building, learning that they had rebuilt and moved to their current location after their historic old building on Antioch Pike along Mill Creek had been severely damaged in the last flood, the second major flood in a couple of years. Flood stories were part of that congregation, and after a few heavy rains I learned that Mill Creek can rise quickly and without much warning. However even though Mill Creek had spilled over the banks a couple of times during my tenure, it hadn’t flooded severely since the 1970’s floods, and most residents thought that the flood potential had diminished significantly with the rebuilding of the highway bridge at Antioch Pike and Haywood Lane, a traditional choke point for debris.

But we had never seen rain like that before, water falling from the sky in buckets. While the official totals would be somewhere around 16 inches, there were places upstream of our church that would see as much as 20 inches, and it became quickly clear that all that water was going to have to go somewhere. So Saturday afternoon, not knowing quite what was in store for me, I loaded up my kids and started heading to the church, dropping off one daughter at a friends and taking the other with me. The waters were already rising, flooding the intersection of Bell Rd and I-24 near Hickory Hollow, and after following a circuitous route, my daughter and I found ourselves crossing Mill Creek at Bell Rd. and were quickly blown away by what we saw. The water was already over the driving range at the corner of Blue Hole, inching up towards the Mini Golf Center. We zoomed on past, not really thinking that it was rising THAT fast, and headed past Lighthouse Church and School to the hill on Tusculum where our church was located. I knew that we had a relationship with the Red Cross and if there WAS flooding that they might need an emergency center, so we hung out, made some coffee, and traded phone calls with the Red Cross staff about their needs.

To make a long story short, it became clear that things were spiraling out of control quickly. Neighbors from Benzing Rd. down the hill started arriving, telling us that the waters were on their street and wanting to park their cars. We turned on the TV and learned that I-24 and the section of Bell Rd. that we had just traversed was underwater. We got a call that some of our church members were stuck on I-24 and watched as they had to jump out of their cars, jump over the median, and walk back to Haywood Ln. while their car floated downstream and we sent out church members to pick them up and care for them. We wandered down the hill and discovered a neighborhood underwater, so we brought wet and very scared folks up to the church to dry off and get warm, only to watch the lights flicker on and off for an hour until it finally went out as the waters overwhelmed the local power substation. With the power out and most of the roads to the church flooded, the Red Cross decided to move everyone to David Lipscomb. We handed out towels, got folks loaded up in their cars, and sent them to the shelter before an interesting trip back to our house which took 2 1/2 hours to go 5 miles.

On Sunday morning, the flood waters were still up, so we, like most of the churches around us, canceled services. I went to the church to check on things, and spent some time looking at the situation on Benzing Dr., but there wasn’t much that could be done, so we waited for the waters to go down.

On Monday morning, however, we put the call out to our church members and went to our denominational office to pick up 50 flood cleanup buckets, which we were going to distribute to folks in need. By this time, the flood waters were rising along the Cumberland in the rest of Nashville, but it was time to get to work in Antioch, and so after talking to Councilman Duane Dominy, a bunch of community folks including the folks from my church met at Antioch Church of Christ to go out in the community. Duane suggested that we start at the Country Meadows mobile home community and we quickly discovered a war zone, with 50 mobile homes having experienced great devastation. We started handing out flood buckets, but they went quickly, and it was clear that we needed a bunch more resources, so some of our church members ran back to the church and put out the call for supplies, creating a small supply depot in the lobby of our Christian Life Center, as well as setting up our kitchen to provide meals for those in need and for area rescue workers.

During our time in the neighborhood, we ran into several other groups representing churches in the community – friends we had worked with in the past – and it became clear to Duane and myself that some effort needed to be made to better coordinate the efforts in Southeast Nashville. I had been involved with a group of pastors in the area that had been gathering each Thursday to pray for the community for five years, so we called together a quick meeting of area churches and community leaders for Tuesday night. As a part of that gathering, we made contact with our friends at Lighthouse Church who were receiving guidance from an organization called Hopeforce, a nondenominational organization that had great experience in disaster relief situations, including time along the Gulf Coast after Katrina. We began to meet with their experts, most helpfully Craig Snow, and they gave us great insight into some of what we were facing, and they quickly became part of the Tuesday night meeting as well.

On Tuesday night some 50 folks were in the Fellowship Hall of our church, including the Hopeforce guys, pastors, community leaders, councilfolk, and Doug Henry and Thelma Harper. We ran through the needs and what we were facing and the general agreement was that we needed to form some sort of volunteer deployment center to better coordinate the work. We knew that the Church of Christ tractor trailer truck was coming to Antioch Church of Christ (it’s like clock work in disaster relief that the Churches of Christ ALWAYS send the first supplies) so we established Antioch C of C as the first supply distribution center and agreed that we would use the Antioch United Methodist building as the volunteer center. The group then empowered me to come up with a plan and be ready to start sending out volunteers the next day.

Needless to say, there wasn’t much sleep that night. We knew that a whole bunch of folks would be arriving the next day and were depending on us to tell them what to do. And in fact, at that point early on, we really didn’t know what to do. It was then that we recognized that before we started sending people to clean, we had to evaluate what needed to be done, and so we developed a plan to send teams out the next day to assess the situation, developing a form which outlined the level of damage and the needs. Knowing that we needed to define a service area (we couldn’t take on ALL of Nashville) we finally identified the Mill Creek watershed in its entirety as the service area, taking a map and dividing the area into quadrants based on the location of the creek and its tributaries.

At 9 a.m. the next morning, I was still printing off forms and listings when 100 volunteers showed up. Luckily for me good friends from the other congregations started helping me get folks organized to send out. One of the volunteers, a woman named Brenda Dye, came up and told me that I looked like I needed some help and that she had office management experience if I needed her. I quickly put her to work, and sent Vernae Coffee off to Cricket to get us a cell phone so that we could have a centralized number for the center. Marie Ray from Lakeshore Christian Church also worked with us to get our ducks in a row, and soon we were sending volunteers out to go door to door to assess the needs so that we could begin sending work crews.

We also had made contact with Hands on Nashville, learning that they were coordinating volunteers for the city in order to keep records on volunteer hours for FEMA matching funds, and agreed to be a deployment center for their volunteers, keeping up with who and when folks volunteered in Southeast Nashville to enter into their database. The folks at Hands on Nashville were great, but there was much confusion as the early news reports implied that they were managing relief efforts for the city (at that point in time, NO one really was) and they were overwhelmed. When they heard what we had set up in Southeast, they came and got our forms to duplicate in other parts of the city. We also called them when we were looking for resources, especially face masks, but in those early days it seemed that they were unable to get us what we needed, something we learned later that wasn’t true in other parts of the city.

Wednesday afternoon we sent some 150 volunteers to do assessments, and as they returned we developed a filing system and a work order system to begin sending other volunteers out for “mucking and gutting” operations. On Thursday we started sending work teams, some times involving groups that arrived to work together, and other times putting together ad-hoc groups. We would have loved to have trained personnel with each group, but that wasn’t possible in those early days, so we developed clear guides for what needed to be done, trying to do a little training as we sent folks out. While we had provided a needed tools list to volunteers before they came, often they didn’t have tools, and we had no tools and few supplies to give them. More often than not when they would ask for tools our only answer was to be creative, and very often they would stop by Home Depot and spend their own money getting what they needed to pull up carpet and cut drywall.

As reports came back from the groups, it quickly became clear that we needed someone on the ground that could follow up on the initial assessments (done by untrained volunteers) and more clearly define project needs. It was at this point that the Hopeforce guys suggested Melissa Thomas of Lighthouse Church as a possible “field coordinator,” and she quickly and efficiently headed out to houses and businesses alike to provide “triage” to relief needs, and helping volunteers understand what needed to be done.  Little did she know that she was being groomed to take over the entire operation when I would have to leave in July.

For the next month, seven days a week, the Fellowship Hall of the Antioch United Methodist Church would serve as the Southeast Nashville Volunteer Center. Knowing that we needed a structure and something to call ourselves when home owners asked who we were, we began to call ourselves Southeast Nashville Flood Relief, and became quickly known throughout the disaster response community as an organization who seemed to be organized and were effective. We were visited regularly by representatives from FEMA, the Red Cross, and faith community disaster response groups that cheered us on and provided needed wisdom, leading to partnerships that continue to this day. And we developed a reputation among volunteers in Nashville as the center that was most organized and able to provide meaningful volunteer experiences.

By the end of May, Antioch UMC was needing to reclaim it’s space for a prescheduled day camp project, so the operation was moved into a portable at Lighthouse Church and School. And then at the end of the summer, when the school was returning and they needed their portable, the operation was moved to the current location on Antioch Pike, the site of the destroyed preschool that was rebuilt by the Extreme Home Makeover folks.

There are, of course, many stories to tell . . . stories of great need that was met by people with huge hearts. There are the frustrating stories as well . . . stories of resources not available to more marginal neighborhoods like Southeast Nashville while wealthier neighborhoods had more resources then they knew what to do with. All of the stories involve people at their best, and at their worst, but they all involve people doing the best they can to deal with a need. Sometimes those stories are noble, and sometimes they involve petty politics and incompetence that led to more suffering. However, I truly believe that in every case, the intentions were good even in the fact of bad outcomes.

The miracle of Southeast Nashville Recovery (still going strong in helping folks to rebuild) is that a very diverse group of folks – liberal and conservative, white and black, English speaking, Spanish speaking, and Arabic speaking, men and women – all found a common means of working together for the good of the community. In the fact of great need, they threw aside their theological differences, their political differences, their racial differences, their soci0-economic differences, and all the other differences that separated them to get dirty and do what they could to alleviate the suffering of their brothers and sisters.

The work continues, and I hope and pray that you will think about how you might help your neighbors in the future as we still recover from the floods of 2010.


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