If Gaylord officials eventually fortify the Opryland Resort & Convention Center with a levee secure enough to confront a raging 500-year flood, they may be sailing into uncharted waters.
“I am not aware of a private levee in Tennessee that could serve as a role model for Opryland’s [proposed] levee,” said Kyle Hayworth, dam and levee safety program manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Nashville District. “There are many privately owned and constructed levees throughout the country, but there are few in the Cumberland/Tennessee River basin.”
A few weeks ago, Gaylord CEO Colin Reed announced the type of levee required could cost between $7 million and $10 million. His comments were the first to include a dollar figure since the company began discussions of such a structure after the May flood.
Brian Abrahamson, Gaylord Entertainment vice president of corporate communications, declined to speak specifically about the materials, construction start date and strategy. He said any comparisons to other levees could be misleading.
Currently, Gaylord has in place a levee — standard in commercial real estate — to address a 100-year flood along the Cumberland River in the Pennington Bend area.
During the recent news conference, Reed said Gaylord officials have been in regular talks with representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local agencies to devise long-range water protection plans for Pennington Bend. Simultaneously, Gaylord has been crafting plans for a 500-year levee around its hotel and the adjacent Grand Ole Opry, both of which were devastated by the May flood— to the tune of $220 million.
Reed said Gaylord could move forward within four months.
If the company builds a levee to contain the kind of flood that drenched the midstate in May, the structure likely would be privately built, but the maintenance and possibly some construction would be performed by the Nashville office of the Army Corps or FEMA, for example.
But federal regulations for levees have gotten stricter of late, causing prices to soar. And a look at other large-scale, privately constructed levees reveals that corners are sometimes cut.
'It can be worse'
Many private levees are modest in construction and incapable of withstanding the force of the catastrophic flood the Midstate suffered.
Nine private levees in Indiana and Missouri — constructed with private funds but that the Army Corps helped build and/or maintains — that were intended to handle a 500-year flood failed to meet the standards of even 100-year floods, according to a 2008 report. Updating them could cost an estimated $200 million.
Because of the Mississippi River and numerous communities of fairly notable populations along its banks, Missouri and Illinois are home to many private levees. But most are quite old, as tightened FEMA standards have limited levee construction — both private and public — during past 25 years or so, according to Tom Waters, chairman of the Orrick, Mo.-based Missouri Levee and Drainage District Association.
“It’s pretty unusual for a levee to be increased in height or built [from scratch] these days,” he said.
Waters said a privately built 500-year levee done today would be fairly unusual. Most levees of that type were constructed years ago, with many of them since taken under control by quasi-public levee districts.
“In the last 20 years, there have not been many private levees — even 100-year — of that magnitude,” he said. “FEMA flood plain regulations have significantly diminished the number.”
There is also the question of how a massive levee at Opryland could adversely affect surrounding properties. To move forward, Gaylord would need to receive certification from FEMA that a levee is unlikely to negatively affect surrounding areas. But in the case of a private entity lacking such certification, local government agencies can grant a variance, Waters said. Such a move is uncommon, he added.
The Army Corps’ Hayworth said the risk of any private levee malfunctioning and leading to damage of surrounding areas depends on “what the levee is protecting.” Given the size and scope of various Opryland-area facilities, including Opry Mills and Music Valley Drive businesses, quality construction would be key.
“If a levee does not perform as intended, it has the potential to impact the areas behind the levee that are being protected,” Hayworth said.
If Gaylord moves forward with its 500-year levee, it could do so independently of the Army Corps’ Nashville District, Hayworth said.
“The guidelines for certification to the base flood elevation are the same for privately constructed and federal levees,” Hayworth said.
Windell Curole, general manager of Galliano, La.-based South Lafourche Levee District, said a privately built 500-year levee would be noteworthy for 2010.
“That seems aggressive, but if you can afford it and need flood protection, you do it,” said Curole, who has 30 years of experience working with levees and whose team worked to combat Hurricane Katrina.
Barney Davis, chief of engineering and construction with the Army Corps’ Nashville District, said the agency is “not aware” of the specifics of Gaylord’s plans.
“A private levee on private property would not necessarily require our approval or agreement unless a permit were required for the construction,” Davis said.
The Army Corps’ Hayworth said the MetroCenter levee is the only one the Nashville District works with. Metro government owns that levee.
“During the recent May flooding, the levee performed well and was routinely inspected during the event, showing minimal impacts from the flooding,” he said.
Curole said Gaylord is smart to be considering the 500-year levee.
“If it happened once, it’s telling you it can happen again,” he said of the May flood. “And it can be worse.”