In a report released nearly seven months after May’s historic flood, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers admits it failed to communicate effectively with the National Weather Service during critical moments as the disaster unfolded in Middle Tennessee.
“That was a blunt, brutal fact,” said Maj. Gen. John Peabody, commander of the corps’ Great Lakes Division, who delivered a similar message during a special U.S. Senate hearing in July on the region’s record flood.
The acknowledgement is a recurrent theme among many of the 20 recommendations for improvement found in a 200-page After Action Review Report released on Tuesday by the corps. The study, which tapped corps officials from the Nashville district and outside the area, is a more comprehensive version of a preliminary account of the corps’ actions during May’s flood unveiled over the summer.
“This event clearly exposed inadequacies in our system of flood response, primarily but not exclusively in the area of communications,” Peabody said. “I’m responsible for this. We’re going to fix this.”
But U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, who has criticized the corps’ handling of the flood, called the report “old news.”
“The corps is just fine-tuning the report it released this summer,” Cooper said in a written statement. “The corps is also promising another, much more detailed report in a year. What really matters now is making sure we don't get flooded again. These reports are helping improve operations, but bigger changes need to be made if we are going to protect our people and property.”
Though the most recent study outlines a host of measures the corps says ideally should have been carried out, officials insist implementing them before May would have meant little –– a few inches at most –– in terms of flood reduction in the Cumberland River basin. There was no getting around the reality, officials say: May’s rainfall amounted to a 1,000-year event, and flooding at overwhelming levels was inevitable.
“This is a very important piece for the public to understand,” said Richard Hancock, director of regional business of the corps. “If this event happened again today, we would have the same amount of flooding ... There was not anything else we could have done to reduce the flood levels. What we really learned is that there are better ways to communication and share information with our sister agencies.”
Nonetheless, with Davidson and surrounding counties continuing to rebuild following the flood’s ravage, a few of the corps’ admissions still seem perplexing.
Officials say they failed to initiate “triggers” that would have activated the corps’ water management staff in downtown Nashville to carry out “24/7” operations. Instead, the water management building went unmanned from 11 p.m. on Saturday, May 1, through 6 a.m. on Sunday, May 2, making it nearly impossible for weather service and corps personnel to share information. Learning from the mistake, a “24/7” staffing operations plan is now in effect.
A lack of basic technology also contributed to the communication woes. From 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. on May 2, the corps did not have Internet connectivity because of a broken Verizon Wireless line. “That didn’t mean we couldn’t communicate, but it made it difficult to communicate,” Hancock said.
Hancock said the corps has now incorporated a redundant system to ensure Internet capability won’t be lost again. Technology devices such as cell phones and wireless air cards are a mainstay today as well.
“I’m a proud BlackBerry carrier now,” said Bob Sneed, water manager for the Nashville district. “We have air cards, so that will allow us to communicate and gather data.”
Corps officials said one of the most critical issues during May’s flood was insufficient “risk communication” with the weather service. For weather experts to deliver accurate flood forecasts to the public, they need up-to-the-minute, reliable data from the corps. That didn’t happen.
“We have a long-term initiative to work with the USGS [United States Geological Survey] and the weather service to help them develop flood inundation mapping, which is a critical risk communication tool with the public,” Hancock said.
The corps and weather service also failed to technical items, which sometimes put the two agencies on different pages, corps officials said. They contend they are now updating the weather service on “data adjustments” more frequently.
Peabody, who heads the Great Lakes and Ohio River division, said Old Hickory Dam’s water level was 6.6 inches from exceeding its limit during May’s flood. If it had topped the dam, he said, the result would have been “an extraordinarily dangerous situation.” He said corps workers “put their lives on the line,” working in heavy rainfall, to prevent overtopping.
While many observers have suggested lowering the levels of the dams throughout the Cumberland region prior to the first weekend of May could have eased the level flooding, corps officials said on Tuesday that it would have helped only minimally. Of note, some dams are used for navigational purposes, while others serve to control water levels.