Isolated Bellevue residents work to get off ‘The Island’

Sunday, May 9, 2010 at 11:45pm
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Rescuers ferry stranded residents across a swamped roadway in a Bellevue neighborhood. Photo by Eric England

The Heim family was riding a school bus to get to the grocery store. It was Monday afternoon, the first time they had left their neighborhood in days, after a morning when virtually everyone without a boat was marooned. While Emma, an eighth-grader, found solace in a postponed Algebra test, her parents empathized with strangers on the bus and reflected on the scene in Bellevue over the weekend.

“The first time we went out it was kind of fun, kind of exciting. The second time my attitude changed completely,” Dan Heim said. “You see people out crying — they lost their houses. It’s just really sad.”

With hundreds of houses underwater and whole neighborhoods inaccessible due to rising waters, Bellevue was one of those hit hardest by what will surely come to be known as the Great Nashville Flood. The Harpeth River, which reached record water levels, snakes through Bellevue and caused widespread flooding and damage. Fewer than 4,000 Davidson County homeowners are insured for flooding; the majority of the damages will not be covered at all.

A boat ride across a submerged Harpeth River Park soccer field was the only safe access to the Coley Davis Road neighborhoods, near Highway 70 and Interstate 40, last Monday afternoon. The tip of the park’s concession stand was barely visible above the massive flooding, and the only road out, Coley Davis, was still underwater in parts.

Some residents were walking around stunned, stranded without power, cell phone reception or a way to get supplies. Houses emptied as residents did whatever they could to help each other. Assistance from outside the community was also visible.

Vernon Spicer came from Ashland City with his boat after the rain finally slowed. Turning Harpeth River Park into a makeshift dock, he spent all day ferrying trapped residents.

“I’ve just been giving rides back and forth, letting people check out their homes,” he said. “When I got here, there were three or four boats. We’ve been carrying notes back and forth for the police, too.”

Steve Hawkings and Mike Luster also had their boat out. A bawling woman asked Hawkings about the conditions of the homes in the neighborhood, but she was too shaken to take a ride and survey the damage.

“If it was underwater yesterday, it’s probablystill underwater right now. I’m sorry to say that,” he told her.

The muddy lake sprawling across Harpeth River Park had covered I-40 less than a day earlier. Riding across it to reach the isolated area, Hawkings explained how he came about helping afflicted neighbors.

“Mike’s sister called and wanted out; her house is flooded,” Hawkings said. “We brought the boat out to get her and then we just saw so many people that needed help, so we’ve been running it all day.”

Nursing concerns

Mike and Brandy Rapp rode with us; they had just gotten to a store for fresh water and food. Mike was concerned about The Meadows Nursing Home off Coley Davis. “The people in the community homes are who I’m worried about the most,” he said. “I heard about a guy that needed ice for insulin. I mean, we were lucky, it’s those people that suffer.”

Hawkings said some of his first boat passengers were nursing home employees heading to work.

On the other side of the flooding, a group of residents worked with police on the street to assess the situation.

Bellevue resident Dee Dee Spiva described the sense of unity among those trapped on “The Island.”

“We’re stranded; there is only one access out,” she said. “I’ve met people in the neighborhood that have been there for 10 years that I had never spoken to. Last night everyone took their grill out and cooked up whatever food they had, before it spoils, and shared with whoever was in need.”

The devastation still resonated louder than encouragement.

“My neighbor, she lost her home, it’s completely flooded, and my heart breaks for her. She’s living alone and she’s a hairdresser,” Spiva said.

Metro police officer Michelle Jones Watkins, who was on the scene, said lack of access to basic supplies was the biggest problem.

“The community has been very helpful and supportive. More people are coming out of the house, they are working together as well. They are focused on each other. It’s not just one family, it’s everyone,” she said.

Brothers-in-law Matt Nicholson and Lee Scott got creative in their relief efforts. They headed out early on a boat, dropped by Home Depot and returned with timber (free of charge). Placing it over the standing water in between Coley Davis and I-40 (newly re-opened), they created a bridge allowing stranded residents to get rides for supplies from relatives or Metro school buses waiting on the side of the interstate, like the Heim family did.

Both Nicholson and Scott had taken in neighbors whose houses flooded. The Tennessee Valley Authority told them the area would be without power for a week.

Escaping “The Island” with her family on one of those buses, Sharon Heim recounted the tragedies she encountered during the flooding.

“I talked to this one woman who had just been in her house for one month, and it was totally flooded and she doesn’t have flood insurance,” she said. “Everyone is looking out for each other, but when the water subsides and the houses clear out, that’s when the help is going to be really needed.”