Photos by Michael W. Bunch
On an eerily desolate cul-de-sac in the Battlemont neighborhood, just north of Woodmont Boulevard, more than a dozen houses still sit vacant. Windows are boarded up, and the words “No Trespassing” adorn front doors and fences.
The flood was two years ago, but some mailboxes are still stuffed to the brim with moldy envelopes. Others have toppled to the ground, defeated. The street is a stark representation of forced relocation.
Park Terrace Drive is just a small sample set of a scene played out in all corners of Music City. From North Nashville to Pennington Bend to Bellevue, the flooding forced families and individuals to accept a buyout or try to rebuild.
Neighborhoods across the city have been left with gaps. In some places, like on Delray Drive in West Nashville, the remaining carnage from the flood is in the form of empty lots. The land, now leveled, will eventually be developed into green space. But right now, the outlines of house foundations remain.
In River Glen, near Opry Mills, no homes were offered buyouts, but some are still vacant. Property owners there were left in limbo: The homes didn’t have enough damage to warrant federal or local assistance, but the damage was too costly to fix.
Overall, Nashville has rebuilt immensely since the Cumberland crested two years ago — but there is still work left to be done.
As soon as the floodwaters started to recede, Metro Water Services began the process of identifying homes for a federal buyout program. In fact, Metro had implemented a similar “hazard mitigation” plan since the late 1990s for homes in flood-prone areas, according to Tom Palko, assistant director of the stormwater division.
“We’ve participated in the hazard mitigation since prior to the flood,” Metro Water spokeswoman Sonia Harvat said. “This was obviously the largest buyout that we’ve done, and it was put in packages and submitted to FEMA and TEMA as monies were available. If we could have submitted all 305 at the same time and gotten them all done, we would have. But you have to split up the workload.”
Originally, Metro Water identified 305 homes for the buyout program and offered the homeowners pre-flood values for their homes. The 244 properties that accepted the offer were divided up into five packages.
Under the program, FEMA pays 75 percent of the total cost, with Metro and the state dividing up the remaining 25 percent equally.
“The packages were not truly done by priority. We did the first packages in the homes where people were not able to move back into, but since then, we’ve really been trying to push them through,” Harvat said. “We were trying to get them through based on the criteria that they met and the funding that was available.”
Palko said demolition is complete on the first two packages, which included parcels on West Hamilton Road in North Nashville and Delray Drive in West Nashville. Metro Water is also “weeks away” from starting the demolition process on the remaining three packages, including Pennington Bend, Benzing Road in Antioch and other miscellaneous parcels throughout town.
The delay between the sets of packages came when FEMA had to freeze roughly $30.1 million in buyout money in the fall of 2011. The funds were reinstated in November 2011, and now the project is back on track.
In total, Metro Water has purchased 179 of the 244 properties and demolished 99 homes. The department has invested $27.6 million and received $6.8 million in reimbursements from FEMA, according to Palko.
Demolition bids from contractors for the destruction of nine houses near Park Terrace Drive are due Monday, according to Metro’s website.
In addition to the original 244 homes, Palko said a sixth application package of an additional 25 homes has been submitted to TEMA.
“We will continue to look for opportunities to purchase additional homes in the future,” Palko said.
Once the trucks and heavy equipment have demolished the flood-damaged homes, neighborhoods will have varying levels of open green space. But there are several FEMA-imposed restrictions on the open land.
Commercial and residential properties are forbidden on the buyout lots. But communities are still getting creative about potential uses.
Mayor Karl Dean recently applauded Hands On Nashville’s work on urban farming on flood-prone land on Wimpole Drive off East Thompson Lane, which was bought out in the early 2000s as part of Metro Water’s pre-2010 flood hazard mitigation plan.
HON partnered with Starbucks and the community to create a large garden on the land and a mile-long walking trail surrounding the garden.
Depending on location, Harvat said, similar projects could spring up from the land that will be leveled.
“Metro Water Services will be responsible [for the upkeep], but the property has to remain Metro property. It can’t be sold, they can’t build on it,” Harvat said. “But some of the property has been turned over to [Metro] Parks so they can use it for greenways or community gardens like the mayor mentioned.”
The area in Battlemont around Park Terrace Drive and Pleasant Valley Road will have more than five acres of green space after roughly 20 homes are demolished. Neighbors are concerned that the land, which is located close to Franklin Road and Interstate 65, could attract unwanted visitors.
“No one wants an area right next door, or right down the street, that could attract an ecosystem of nuisance wild animals, an encampment of vagrants ... or anyone else creating a hostile environment” Battlemont Neighborhood Association secretary Jocelyn Kasper wrote in a recent newsletter.
“One way to avoid this is by providing a space that appeals to law-abiding residents, making it thereby unattractive to criminals, even if that means increased traffic.”
A meeting is scheduled for May 14 to discuss options for the land.
But Palko said there are a few layers of bureaucracy before deciding the fate of the green space.
“We have to make sure that the intended use fits within what the rules are. ... We would first make a determination: Does the use fit what FEMA wants you to do with it? If it does, then it’s a matter of going through the process of getting funding,” Palko said. “You can’t go out there today, snap your fingers and make all these parts happen. So it has to be prioritized, funded, and there would be a lot of discussion on what the ultimate end-use would be for those properties.”
No homes were offered buyouts in the River Glen neighborhood in Pennington Bend. But homeowners association president Pamela Miller said the flood still took a less-visual toll. The rising waters, combined with a down economy, left several River Glen residents with few options.
“People got their FEMA money, and it’s not enough to put their house back together, and they tapped into whatever emergency funds or resources they had to get additional cash, then you turn around and lose your job,” Miller said.
One neighbor, according to Miller, suffered a stroke after the flood and then subsequently lost her job and her home.
“There’s just been a lot of people who have had to walk away from their homes, filing bankruptcy,” Miller said.
From the beginning, Metro worked to combat those issues through nonprofit assistance and grants through The Housing Fund, a Metro Housing Development Authority subsidiary. We Are Home was set up as a “gap financing program.”
THF Executive Officer Loretta Owens said they signed assistance agreements with 562 homeowners — and doled out $9.6 million in aid.
According to Owens, THF provided an average of $17,000 to homeowners who had an average repair cost need of $39,000. That still leaves a wide gap and helps explain foreclosures in River Glen and other parts of town.
But THF is still taking applications and trying to help residents who may have been overlooked by early relief efforts.
In December, they introduced four new forms of aid to combat some ongoing problems:
1) An assistance program directed at rental properties.
2) A program to help with elevating homes that were not part of the buyout program. Home elevation above the base flood elevation can dramatically reduce flood damage, according to FEMA.
3) Rental and down-payment assistance for families that are in limbo after accepting the hazard mitigation buyout.
4) A program for prospective homebuyers to purchase foreclosed and abandoned homes affected by the flood.
Owens also said the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee recently provided funds to help homes and neighborhoods with land movement issues — like erosion — from the flood.
Mayor Karl Dean addressed a modest crowd of reporters and public officials at the city’s Office of Emergency Management last week to mark the second anniversary of the flood.
“In some ways, it’s hard to believe that nearly two years have passed since I and a whole team of Metro emergency responders made this space our temporary home during the historic floods,” Dean said.
Dean thanked the many organizations that helped assist in the aftermath and noted, with a hint of pride, how the recovery effort will be remembered.
“We remember how the story of the flood in Nashville turned into a story of incredible optimism, community spirit, and people coming together to help each other in the most dire circumstances,” Dean said.
Dean addressed changes that Metro has made to its emergency response system since the flood. For one, Metro will streamline all emergency communications with a 3-1-1 hot line number during natural disasters and other emergencies.
The mayor also unveiled a new online tool called the Nashville Emergency Response Viewing Engine, NERVE, which will allow residents and the media to access vital information during emergencies. The tool will highlight areas that have been hit hardest and provide information on shelters and road closures, among other features.
“NERVE is going to be a great resource for all of us, the next time the weather gets bad or an emergency strikes. The tool is like a Google Map for disasters,” Dean said. “It is an innovative one-stop-online-shop for disaster response, unlike anything Metro has provided before.”
Despite the progress being made, Dean addressed continuing aftereffects of the flood.
“There are situations where people are not whole, certainly,” Dean said. “I don’t think there’s going to be a definitive moment when we can say we’re done. I don’t think we are.”
Dean sympathized with residents still waiting for buyouts and other relief.
“I understand their impatience and I understand everybody’s desire to get back to where they were before the flood occurred,” Dean said. “We’re doing our best. ... There is the Metro government that wants to help, there is the very talented nonprofit sector that wants to help, too.”
And neighbors across Music City are still in need.
“I know the flood seemed like it happened such a long time ago,” River Glen HOA
president Miller said. “But for the people that it happened to, it’s not a very long time.”