One year after some 13 inches of rain fell across Davidson County during a chaotic 36 hours, producing a rare and massive flood, and images that will last forever, Metro officials say Nashville is still in recovery mode.
Twelve months of rehabilitation efforts haven’t erased reminders of an event that ranks as the fourth-largest non-hurricane natural disaster in United States history, one that wreaked havoc to the tune of $2 billion in private property losses and another $120 million in public infrastructure damages.
Flood victims are still rebuilding. Nashvillians are still trying to reclaim a sense of normalcy. Commercial symbols as large as Opry Mills Mall remain closed.
“We’ve come a long way since last year, but we still have a ways to go,” said Metro Councilman Lonnell Matthews Jr., who represents North Nashville neighborhoods that were among the hardest-hit last May.
Along the area’s West Hamilton Road, several homes are to be bulldozed through a federal home buyout program. Still, he said dozens of families are looking to rebuild homes that must be elevated above ground, which has become even more complicated because many have exhausted their allocation of Federal Emergency Management Agency dollars and insurance help.
“There’s some people who are literally paying paycheck to paycheck to pay contractors to do more work,” Matthews said. “It’s just happening slowly, because a lot of residents in that area don’t really have the resources to cover a lot of costs.”
Real-life struggles come as Metro has maintained its 180-degree transition to make flood recovery a priority. A flood recovery team carved into Mayor Karl Dean’s office one year ago remains intact. The mayor said the team could be around for another six months to one year, a timeframe he based on the length of recovery in other cites. At the same time, employees across Metro departments — from the Department of Law to Metro Water Services — are still balancing their former responsibilities with newly adopted flood-related duties. The website www.nashvillerecovery.com  remains.
“I don’t think you’re out of recovery until everyone who needs help has been helped,” Dean told The City Paper last Wednesday, as another storm threatened the area. “Just take Opry Mills for an example. Opry Mills is not going to reopen until 2012. That is 2,500 jobs, that’s $25 million in sales tax, and that’s property tax we’re not getting. We’re still feeling economic consequences of the flood. We’re still in a flood-recovery stage, and we should never take our eye off that.”
According to figures supplied by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, last May’s flood affected 14,500 employees from 2,773 businesses. One year later, the chamber classifies 1,528 jobs as unlikely to return.
Initial city assessments last May revealed 9,486 damaged residential structures. As of last week, the Metro Codes Department had issued a total of 4,030 building permits, but according to the mayor’s office, more than 300 property owners still hadn’t obtained a permit to rebuild.
As he did during the initial months after the flood, Dean continues to refer victims to We Are Home, a rebuilding assistance program that operates out of the Nashville-based nonprofit The Housing Fund. Offered to victims who have maxed out their FEMA allocations, the We Are Home program has awarded $12 million in grants and loans for building repairs and another $260,000 in rental assistance.
The average recipient of We Are Home has received $18,000 in assistance, but many have depleted their allocations.
Dean called Nashville’s Hazard Mitigation Home Buyout Program an aggressive response to May’s flood. Paid for through a combination of federal, state and local dollars, the program facilitates the teardowns of houses most susceptible to flooding.
In its initial phase, 74 homeowners have agreed to follow through with the voluntary program. As of last week, Metro had closed on 61 properties, with plans to turn flood-prone land into open green space. Metro has moved forward with the demolition of 11 homes on Delray Drive along Richland Creek, with homes on West Hamilton Road up next.
Metro attorney Doug Sloan, the point person for the home buyout program, describes the process as laborious, one often slowed by complications with deeds and other legal matters.
In all, 305 properties are eligible for the program, with homes in Pennington Bend and elsewhere slated for demolition, but Sloan said it’s hard to say when the process would conclude.
“It’s impossible to say when it will be complete, because I just don’t know what problems may exist with all the titles of all the various properties,” Sloan said.
Dean has also established a flood preparedness team to study long-term ways to lessen the damages of future floods. Partners will include the mayor’s office, several Metro departments, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and others.
At the time of the February 2011 announcement, the program was expected to take 10 months to develop. But Metro is just now finalizing a contract with Nashville-based engineering firm Barge Waggoner Sumner & Cannon, the project manager. The delay could push back recommendations to a date later than expected.
Dean said the team would study “from county line to county line” to formulate ideas and suggestions about how to avoid a repeat of last May’s devastation. He expects recommendations to come in the months ahead.
“I don’t know what they’re going to be — whether they’re floodwalls, diversion programs, it could be lots of different things,” Dean said. “We’ll have to decide whether we’re going to go forward with them or not. We’ll probably need state help and federal help to fund them. They will be very large projects. I would anticipate that.”