Published May 08, 2010
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In a city known for its music, tragedy took center stage.
More than 13 inches of pounding rain in two life-changing days last weekend left part of Nashville underwater. Not even the most wrenching country music weeper could describe the death and devastation.
Nine people drowned, and at least 2,000 homes were destroyed or damaged by flooding. Twenty-six hundred people were left homeless at least temporarily, and thousands evacuated. At week's end, damages were estimated at $1.5 billion and climbing.
The images were stark: Homes shoved off their foundation. Cars submerged. A small building floating down Interstate 24.
Nashvillians who opened their morning newspaper were greeted by these 2-inch headlines in The Tennessean:
'NASHVILLE WILL RECOVER.' Wednesday.
BACK AT HOME, WORK IS DAUNTING. Thursday.
At least Friday, they were no longer all capitals: Life's possessions reduced to trash.
A Los Angeles radio announcer, in an off-air conversation Tuesday with a Nashville reporter, said, "I'll bet there's been a lot of praying there."
Sharon Midgett needed some of those prayers. She had spent the last 37 years in her home east of Nashville before 8-foot floodwaters consumed it. Despite that, she framed her misfortune with surprising grace.
"I've lost a child, my mother and father, and my husband recently died. What it teaches me is what you think is important, isn't," she said.
It started ominously Saturday with Jimmy Buffett giving storm updates to a sold-out crowd at the Bridgestone Arena in a Nashville version of a hurricane party. By Monday, the arena had a foot of unwelcome water on the main floor.
And by the end of the soggy week, touching obituaries were appearing in local papers.
A joint obit Thursday in The Tennessean recounted the lives of Andrew J. and Martha England, who died together in the unforgiving floods after 59 years of marriage.
It said Andy "never passed up a good meal" and Martha "loved to play a game of high stakes bingo at the community center."
Icons were no match for raging floodwater, some of it from the normally placid Cumberland River that winds through the heart of the city.
The famous country music show was forced to move from its normal location five miles northeast of downtown to the War Memorial Auditorium near the state Capitol. But the show went on -- as it has since 1925.
"Our family, our songs and our spirit live on," performer Marty Stuart told the small crowd Tuesday night.
At the posh Gaylord Opryland Resort on Monday, up to 10 feet of water stood amid neatly arranged tables with linen tablecloths still sitting majestically on them. Nine acres of atriums were full of water.
Across the flooded street, a life-size Elvis statue, missing his guitar, was spotted on its back in the parking lot of the Wax Museum of the Stars.
\In Franklin just south of Nashville, Maggie Coyle, a 57-year-old speech pathologist, wound up with 16 inches of water inside the first floor of her home near the Harpeth River.
She and a neighbor talked about how many times they had seen devastation in other places.
"We said it's our turn to be the poor people," Coyle said.
Several of Nashville's famed honky-tonks near the Cumberland, known for their freewheeling durability, closed down at least temporarily.
"Every business down here has probably taken a three-month hit," said Adam Hesley, general manager of the Cadillac Ranch nightspot. More optimistically, he said a mechanical bull on the second floor would be operational once an early week power outage was resolved.
Robert's Western World, a bar billing itself as "Nashville's undisputed home of traditional country music," was undaunted.
"We're still the same bar, flood or no flood," bartender Sammy Barrett said Tuesday as a few determined customers continued to shuffle in.
Shortly afterward, Sen. Lamar Alexander played "Tennessee Waltz" at the Opry show and reassured outsiders:
"The music is still playing in Nashville. Come on down ... and spend your money." Eleven million do annually.
The floods shut down all three of Nashville's beer distributors. Beer lovers, concerned about this subsidiary crisis, were comforted that most beer stocks around town were substantial.
Also reassured were citizens who heard a rumor that dangerous piranha had gotten loose at a restaurant at the flooded Opry Mills mall. Not so, officials said.
Even Alabama football coach Nick Saban could not work his national championship magic in Nashville. Like changing a play on the field, his appearance Thursday at a gathering of school supporters was relocated from downtown elsewhere because of flooding damage.
There were lighter moments.
City officials encouraged Nashvillians to preserve water, igniting lively banter about bodies without showers.
The Nashville Zoo named a newborn tapir "Noah."
Meanwhile, local TV stations began airing or scheduling fundraising telethons by midweek.
Nashville school children had no homework that kept them from watching. City schools, who dismiss meekly after the first snowflake, were out all week.
And the weather, so cruel last weekend, turned beautiful Monday and gloriously persisted all week with spectacular sunshine.
June Ross of Dundee, Scotland, visiting Nashville to attend the Opry, summed up the week's unfolding destruction:
"It's just so sad."