Cooper: Was the flood manmade?

Monday, May 17, 2010 at 5:04pm

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.”

12 Comments on this post:

By: idgaf on 5/17/10 at 6:46

Coopers rants are reason enough to get rid of him if you didn't have a reason before.

Anyone that expects government to function properly is not in touch with reality and multipley that when 2 agencies are involved.

If the water went over the dam then you would have seen nashville wiped out.

A word about Alexander too, he is beyond his prime and should retire as soon as we get a republican governor.

By: dva56 on 5/17/10 at 7:43

Right Mr. Cooper, "Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it."

By: budlight on 5/18/10 at 5:10

My thoughts, precisely, dva56; I mean, when are we going to stop those man-made tornados?

By: Kosh III on 5/18/10 at 6:17

"Anyone that expects government to function properly is not in touch with reality and multipley that when 2 agencies are involved."

I guess this is why we are still stuck in with Bush's Iraq and Afghanistan wars to liberate oil?

By: Bigguy on 5/18/10 at 7:13

Why, as it certainly appears, was Gaylord Hotel given info about the pending flood, but this info was not available to the general public?

This conclusion is drawn from a TV interview with a Gaylord Hotel Exec. who commented on the sudden evacuation of hotel guests. The TV reporter [sorry don't recall which local channel ran this story] asked this exec what they'd heard from the Army Corp of Engineers? His comment was he was not going to share that info. The conclusion I drew from the comment was that someone, perhaps the Army Corp of Engineers, had requested Gaylord not to share their conversation.

That is what I'd like to see revealed if there actually is an investigation.

By: CitizensWin on 5/18/10 at 7:54

I spoke at length to a former TVA employee. He made a very persuasive argument that this flood was a preventable disaster had the TVA COE simply followed the logic of draining the TVA 'Reservoirs' in the winter to the recommended levels of the 50's, 60's and 70's.

In other words, our ' Flood Control System of Dams' have become a Lakefront Properties for Recreation System instead of Flood Control.

• TVA has historical documents of where the water was drawn down
• Political fights have put some TVA dams under the Corps of Engineers
• As recently as 2004 TVA further changed levels to enhance 'Recreation.'

Since when did a Flood Control System become a Recreational System?

With No Winter Drawdowns

The annual drawdown schedule was worked out when each dam was being designed. It was like an owner's manual. There is a calendar chart that shows where the lake level ought to be (a range really) for every COE and TVA dam month by month. Compare the design draw down schedule and the historical lake levels.

In any case, the actual level for all of these lakes is a matter of historical record. You can, by going over the data, see how the reservoir levels have "risen" over the years. There is also the very public fight about ten years ago where the congressional delegation criticized TVA's draw down schedule and threatened to remove TVA's ability to manage the lake levels and give it to the COE because the COE was known to be more responsive to political pressure and was already modifying their draw downs because of complaints to the local congress guy. So it was widely known and expected that if the COE handled the draw down, there wouldn't be as much of one. This was a widely reported public fight... So the original draw down lake levels are easily researched as are the actual lake levels.

There is also a data plate for each dam with how many cubic feet per second can be dumped with the gates wide open. Note this is far less than the river can move if the dam wasn't there. Again an easily known fact.

Add these two facts together, and you have rather full as opposed to rather empty reservoirs and concrete barriers in the rivers (the dams) that allow the passage of less water than the free-flowing river did. All you need is a heavy rain (in an area that historically gets about as much rain as the Pacific Northwest). Another known fact.

I and others knew this would happen 10-15 years ago and it won't be the last one either... The "big one" will be not when the COE system floods Nashville, but when the TVA system floods Chattanooga...

The "100 year flood" maps are therefore a joke and based on a system of dams and reservoirs being operated "as designed" when, now, they are not...

By: Funditto on 5/18/10 at 9:22

over the years, idgaf hates the government when we have a dem in office but "respects" it when the republicans are in charge.

By: vechester on 5/18/10 at 9:30

Political grandstanding as usual by both parties...

By: on 5/18/10 at 9:48

I agree with vechester. It looks like politicians grandstanding, and trying to capitalize on this horrible disaster. Why is it that things like this happen, and people have to find someone at fault and someone to "blame" for the tragedy. It just might be that is was something that just happened and in actuality, no one is to blame. It just happened.

By: budlight on 5/18/10 at 11:24

stlgtr55 - it's just our human nature. We have 5 fingers: a thumb to catch a ride; a pinkly to "pinky spit swear"; a ring finger to sport big diamonds; a middle finger also known as the "conversation" finger and an index finger: That one is to use as a file to hold all data until we're ready to blame someone.

Then we point and point and point. You're probably right; it's just part of life; not the good part, but a crucial character building part of life. And who can control the weather?

By: razzledazzle on 5/22/10 at 10:40

So seriously are people thinking that this indecent was deliberate. WHAT REASON WOULD THEY HAVE TO DO THAT? A good reason at that...I would love to hear one from one who is in favor of such nonsense.

By: razzledazzle on 5/22/10 at 10:51


I can see if they made a mistake. But who's to say that the areas not affected would have been safe if the water had not been release in the manner in which it was. Just imagine if the dam broke due to all the pressure. All of Nashville probably would have been under water.

The fact is that water is a very powerful force of nature. Everyone involved in predicting and managing this whole situation probably did the best they could. The word prediction...who would have ever predicted that the rain would be so intense and steadfast? It happened so fast....