Jail inmates piled sandbags Monday in a desperate 11th-hour attempt to save Nashville’s only operational water treatment plant from the overflowing Cumberland River, and the state issued a mandatory order for residents to cut their water use in half.
As the river crested Monday evening, floodwaters came within less than a foot of flooding the city's sole working water treatment plant.
After surveying the damage by helicopter, Gov. Phil Bredesen signed documents asking President Obama to declare a disasters in 52 Tennessee counties, the first step in obtaining federal assistance for victims of the weekend flood that claimed 14 lives—six in Davidson County. Rep. Jim Cooper, who joined Bredesen on the flight, called it a “multibillion-dollar disaster.”
Bredesen said the president phoned him and “offered his and Michelle’s sympathies and prayers for the people of Tennessee going through this.”
“We’re going to need a lot of help to get out of this,” the governor said. “There’s been an enormous amount of property damage here.”
He said 22,000 homes remained without power — 13,000 in Davidson County — and 1,100 people were staying in 30 emergency shelters in the state.
“This isn’t just a hundred-year flood,” Cooper said. “People are now saying it could be a five-hundred or one-thousand year flood. To look at the damage from the air, it’s devastating. This is a multibillion-dollar disaster. It’s terrifying to see great institutions like Opryland and Opry Mills under water.”
Bredesen added: “All you have to do is get up in a helicopter and you can see it’s enormous. It is a lot of damage. Just looking along the Cumberland River right here in Nashville, there are all these industrial sites. I mean, the bottom floor of Opry Mills is filled with water. This is going to be a very expensive thing.”
The Cumberland River crested Monday night nearly 12 feet above its flood level, and officials said the city's only remaining operational water treatment plant was spared the flood. The river crested about 7 p.m. at 51.9 feet, the highest level since 1937.
Dean said the city asked Wilson County to haul in drinking water for Nashville should the Omohundro plant go under. Jail inmates were filling sandbags and helping Metro Water workers pile them around the plant, the mayor said.
“It’s imperative that we take steps immediately to begin conserving water in Nashville,” Dean said. “What we’ve asked citizens to do is, frankly, just use water for drinking and for cooking purposes. I can’t underscore the seriousness of this enough. It’s vitally important in the days ahead, as the water supply gets tighter, that we do everything we can to stretch it out.”
The mayor said floodwater already was “very close” to the plant. If the plant is flooded, he said, “We’d have no ability to produce drinkable water in Davidson County. We’d have to rely on outside water sources. We’d have to bring in water. It’s serious. We could get through it, but it would be a real challenge. I’m concerned about the one that’s underwater now. Who knows what sorts of structural issues we’re going to have to deal with.”
Dean and Bredesen said they secured an agreement Monday from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers not to release more reservoir water into the Cumberland until the danger subsides.
“We’re making sure the Corps understands how serious the situation is here in regard to any further releases of water,” the governor said. “The Corps controls the dams. The lakes have enormous reserve capacity. This is a time of year when they’re not really high. We have been in contact with the Corps at a very high level to make sure they are not going to damage our ability to manage this issue we have in particular at this water plant. We’ve been very satisfied of their willingness to work with us on that.”
The state water conservation order was labeled mandatory, but officials conceded there was no enforcement mechanism, and they clearly saw it as mainly a public relations effort.
“We’re not prepared to talk about enforcement today,” said Jim Fyke, commissioner of the state Environment and Conservation Department. “We’re really just calling on the citizens to honor what Mayor Dean has requested. At the appropriate time, if there is a serious infraction, we will deal with that. But there are no immediate steps for enforcement. The big deal is that we’re trying to make sure that people understand the severity of it and we’re confident that the general public will respond to our plea.”