With plenty of questions still unanswered two weeks after Nashville’s historic flood, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper on Monday said he supports U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander’s call for an investigation to examine crucial decisions leading up to the disaster.
“We need to get the facts,” Cooper said. “We need to make sure this never happens again.”
Making a slideshow presentation to members of the Rotary Club of Nashville, Cooper posed the question: Was this a manmade disaster?
Stopping short of answering the question directly, Cooper said one school of thought suggests it was not. After all, no one anticipated the record level of rain collected by the 42 Tennessee counties officially authorized as disaster areas by the federal government.
Then again, Cooper continued, the National Weather Service failed to register an accurate forecast, demonstrated poor coordination with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and most troubling of all, no one was warned of the degree of flooding that could occur.
“Who was warned about this?” Cooper asked the audience. “Almost no one, and that’s the spooky thing about it.”
Ideally, a flood should be easier to predict than tornadoes, he said, which the National Weather Service can locate with relative precision. In the case of Nashville’s flood, however, gauges in the Cumberland River weren’t working, and experts failed to produce accurate weather forecasts.
“A lot of weather forecasting is all computer-driven,” Cooper said. “Without any gauges in the river, how did they know? We don’t know exactly when the gauges were knocked out. It could have been at the last minute or it could have been early on.”
Like Alexander, critical of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for its failure to communicate clearly on releasing water from the J. Percy Priest and Old Hickory dams, Cooper said he has some questions for the corps as well.
For starters, Cooper said the difference in dam designs meant Percy Priest had 22 feet of water storage before the flood, while Old Hickory had only 5 feet of storage.
“Why is one [dam] four times better capable of holding water?” Cooper said.
Prior to the flood, Cooper said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could have perhaps reduced the water level of Old Hickory Lake, which would have increased the storage capacity during the storms.
“They only had 5 feet to begin with,” Cooper said. “But every foot in a big lake like that makes a substantial difference.”
Following the downpour, Cooper said the corps dumped water from the Cordell Hull Dam to Old Hickory Dam, which was already full.
“That’s kind of weird,” Cooper said of the decision regarding the Cordell Hull Dam.
In the years following the construction of dams in Middle Tennessee, the highest the Cumberland River had been measured was 47 feet. The storms two weeks ago crushed that record, as its height crested at 52 feet.
“You have to ask, that difference between 47 feet and 52 feet, was it preventable?” Cooper said. “One more foot, and we would have literally lost almost everything. All of MetroCenter, 10,000 jobs, would have been gone. The MetroCenter levee was within inches of being topped.
“Was the corps at fault or was anyone at fault?” Cooper said. “That’s the big question.”