WASHINGTON – Federal officials on Thursday defended their response to historic flooding in Tennessee that killed 22 people earlier this year, while acknowledging they could have done a better job of warning the public of the potential devastation.
Testifying before a Senate committee, leaders of the National Weather Service and the Army Corps of Engineers said the level of flooding was unavoidable given the unprecedented two-day rainfall that doubled the previous record. But they said they didn't exchange critical information effectively, and that as a result the public and emergency responders were slow to grasp the severity of what was happening.
"The devastating levels and extent of the flood inundation was not conveyed in a clear and effective manner," said Gary Carter, director of hydrologic development at the National Weather Service.
He said the agencies understand that improvements are necessary and are working toward them. The corps' area commander, Maj. Gen. John Peabody, said the event has caused the agency to reconsider its worst-case weather scenarios.
The flooding, which occurred in early May, was one of the state's worst natural disasters, causing over $2 billion in damage in Nashville alone.
Furious rains — triple what was forecast — swelled the Cumberland River to nearly 52 feet on May 3, 12 feet above flood level.
The Corps of Engineers issued a draft report this week that identified serious communication problems. An e-mail from the agency's Nashville office sent before the floods began was overlooked, for example, meaning that information about the potential severity of the event didn't move up the chain of command. The Nashville office also lost its Internet service, hampering its ability to analyze reservoir data.
Local elected officials and members of Congress at Thursday's hearing offered mixed reviews of the federal government's efforts, but there was broad agreement that things could have been better.
Rep. Jim Cooper, a Democrat who represents the Nashville area, was particularly critical, saying the corps is putting "a cheerful face on some really ugly facts." He said the agency was woefully slow to realize the severity of the flooding and didn't establish an emergency operations center until people had died.
"It's hard to see how the corps could give itself any kind of passing grade," he said. "I know Boy Scout troops that are more prepared than this."
Rep. Steven Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, said such violent storms are becoming more frequent as a result of global warming. He called on climate change skeptics to take notice and join efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
Corps of Engineers After Action Report: http://bit.ly/abLDEA