Of Hypocrisy and Floods

by JT Ellison

(After Cornelia’s loss on Friday, I took this post down so she could get the love and sympathy of our wonderful community unhindered. Because this is such a topical post, Pari very graciously offered to give me her Monday to help raise awareness for the victims of the Nashville flood. My deepest thanks to Pari for her generosity, and thanks to all of you for your support and donations – they’ve made a huge difference.)

I am a hypocrite.

I am a weather junkie. My husband calls me junior meteorologist. I live to watch the Weather Channel. I have four weather sites bookmarked in my Internet toolbar.

So how did I get caught short when one of the biggest natural disasters to hit the United States decided to drop in my backyard?

It started simply enough. Friday, April 30 was my birthday. We went to the symphony. Had elegant seats in one of the Founder’s box. Met the conductor, Giancarlo Geurrero. We had no idea that two days later, the symphony hall would suffer more than 2.5 million dollars in damage.

It began to storm overnight. I woke to thunder and driving rain. We were under a tornado watch. Despite this, a birthday breakfast was in order. We went to my favorite breakfast restaurant in Belle Meade. While we ate, I kept my iPhone app for Weatherbug open and watched the radar. The Flood Warnings started to pour in, four alerts in thirty minutes. I read one of the alerts and saw Memphis has already received 12 inches of rain. We decide to make a grocery run. Stock up. We didn’t think to get ice. We get ham and cheese, sandwich makings. Go home and watch the Weather Channel, read Twitter. Watch the local news. It is raining harder than I’ve ever seen.

The thunder and lightning continue for two days.

The mudline is 30 feet high. Trees are choked with brown goo. It looks like a fungus has uniformly climbed the bushes and fences, like something from the Matrix. 

The insides of people’s houses are on the outside. Pink insulation floats like discarded cotton candy at the curbs. Asphalt has turned to dirt roads, clouds of choking dust following the dump trucks barreling by. Debris, piles and piles of debris, clog the sidewalks and lawns. What haven’t they found?

By Sunday morning we knew we were in trouble. My husband woke me early—the culvert on the other side of our next-door neighbor’s house had become a raging river. We suited up and went to check it, video camera in tow. Trees were down. My neighbor’s driveway was a lake, one of his cars had water up to the door. My husband went under our house, where a rather simple yet sophisticated drainage system is in place because of the natural spring that runs beneath our subdivision. He returned jubilant, the drains were working. We had a fractional amount of standing water under the house. Mind, we’d already gotten ten inches of rain by this time, so that was the best possible news. The fact that we are about three feet higher than our neighbor helped too. Those three little feet made all the difference.

We were watching the radar when the power blew.

I dream of water. Swimming, boating, surfing. Long showers, mud puddles, then raging torrents pulling trees and cars into the current. A doll floats by, then a man’s head. I wake in a sweat.

We checked the phones, thrilled to hear a dial tone. I called my parents, knew they were worried. Hell, at this point, I was worried. It was still raining. Not a drizzle, or a soft patter. It was still coming down in what we like to call a gully washer, thick sheets of rain. I’ve seen it rain like that for an hour and get a flood warning. But two days? 

By Sunday afternoon, the phones were out too. We used Twitter on our cell phones to follow what was happening. Twitter proved to be our hero in all of this, Twitter and local radio host Steve Gill, who broadcast until he was hoarse.

By the afternoon, the cell towers had lost power and we had no way to know what was happening. Total isolation. Junior meteorologist realized she didn’t have the supplies she needs. A generator. Ice. A weather radio. A battery-powered television. A decent radio, period — that’s a fluke, by the way. We just cleaned out our storage area and gave away the televisions that don’t work on a digital signal, and got rid of three battery powered radios. We didn’t think we’d need them, and planned to replace the TV. Sometime. We eventually found a cheap plastic one that would run on batteries and tuned in. Static voices warned that hell had arrived in Bellevue.

We gathered flashlights and candles. Realized we were low on batteries too.

The water was still rising.

There is nothing eerier than being in a storm with no power. You are surrounded by a penetrating darkness that bleeds into your skin. Lightning is your only illumination, and it comes in brief, strobe-like bursts. The sound of rain becomes white noise, like crickets and cicadas in summer, a commotion you expect to hear.

At 7:00 p.m., knowing it wasn’t a good idea, we made the hard decision to leave the house. At the very least, we could find out what was happening firsthand.

And suddenly, the rain stopped. The silence was overwhelmingly loud.

We drove out and saw unbelievable amounts of brown, dead water. Realized that this was ten times worse than we could have ever imagined. Houses, neighborhoods, roads, all underwater. We heard there were water rescues going on less than a mile from us. The water was up to the stop lights. Not the stop signs, the stop lights. The roads into our part of the county were all closed, either washed out of blocked by mudslides and trees. We were literally an island.

We went to high ground by the Natchez Trace to make cell calls and let our folks know we’re still okay but unreachable at home. I gave thanks for my iPhone as it downloaded a few important emails that I was waiting on.

Publix was open, God bless them. They know how to handle a disaster from years of working in hurricane zones. That’s what this felt like, a hurricane’s aftermath. We stocked up on a few things that we needed. Oranges. Soup. Things we could cook on the grill that could stay on the counter. Water. Batteries. We only took what we needed, a few of each, so there was enough to go around. Hoarding would not do.

We hatched a grand plan to rescue the open package of hot dogs from the refrigerator, along with my birthday cake and a half-drunk bottle of wine.

It started to rain again. We cooked under umbrellas, realized we were low on propane. When will our shortcomings as survivors end? Remember when Zoë Sharp wrote the essay “Four Meals From Anarchy” which detailed how the world would fall apart without basic conveniences. I realize I’m living her thesis.

We ventured out again late Monday afternoon. Word was the road to the highway was open. It was. We went two exits up the highway, and it was another world. No mud. No standing water. People at Target and Best Buy. We bought chargers for the car so we could power the laptops. Ate at McDonalds. The woman behind the counter looked at me and said, “Oh my God, where did you come from? You look exhausted.” I suppose I did. And my house was still standing. I had no right to be exhausted. I accepted the free cheeseburger anyway.

I got to work on my manuscript by hand and quickly realized my mind doesn’t work that way anymore. I am so in tune with my keyboard that the words don’t flow out of my pen correctly. A strange realization, I am utterly dependent on electronics. This is sad. I changed tactics and outlined the remainder of the book. That works.

Tuesday night, as we were wrapping a cul-de-sac block party (one of our neighbors has a generator, so there was fresh food and lots of cheer) the power came back on. We’d all retreated into our individual darkness, candles were lit. I was just settling in to read and CRACK! the lights blared to life. What did we do? All of us, the whole street, ran outside, whooping and hollering. Back into the dark, to which we’d become so accustomed. The inky night greeted us, but the brilliant display of stars faded to pinpricks. The sky became small again.

Still no phones or cell, but sweet, blessed power.

We were saved.

I’m betting there will be a whole lot of babies born in January named Noah.

 

#

 

There will be rain tonight. And while the thought strikes fear in me, knowing that the storms will pass through at 40 miles an hour is heartening. It is temporary. I may park the truck in the driveway to let the rain wash away the mud caked on it from trying to drive around in the muck to get supplies.

Irony abounds. Take the sad story of the man from White’s Creek who has spent years advocating for his neighborhood because he was worried about the houses being flooded, who was turned down by the city time and again, swept away by the flood waters as he tried to save his house from the rising tide, found drowned in a field upstream. Our police chief, leaving in the middle of the crisis to take the police chief position in New Orleans. He leaves this week, practically before the body counts are finalized. Honestly? Good damn riddance. His manipulation of the crime figures to make it seem like crime has diminished are just one problem the new chief will have to undo. Morale in the rank and file has been dismal, the cops I’ve talked to, the very ones patrolling our neighborhoods and dragging bodies from cars, are giddy with relief.  Serpas even had a subconscious slip during his press conference, when he said his main concern wasn’t Nashville at this time. No kidding, chief. Sayonara.

We had so few reports of crime. Instead, all was turned upside down. Our inmate population saved the water supply for Davidson County. They, rightly so, busted their butts, sandbagging. In a true crisis, there comes a time when everything is transcended—class, race, desire, greed. All of that is supplanted with a yearning for survival. New York saw it during 9-11. Sadly, New Orleans didn’t see it the way they should have, as government agencies sniped and the Mayor of that city declined help. In a crisis of this magnitude, you need your infrastructure to work seamlessly. Nashville’s did.

There are stories of hope and darkness. The former head coach of the Vanderbilt Commodores was rescued from waist deep water in his River Plantation home by his ingenious son and a photographer from The Tennessean. Coach has MS. He’s confined to a hospital bed. They finally realized his mattress was inflatable and floated him out the front door on a raft, saving his life.

Can you imagine what it must feel like, strapped to a bed, unable to save yourself, watching the water rise, lying in the brown murk of the flood. Knowing that you’ve only got an hour left at most? Begging your wife to leave, to save herself, and knowing it’s too late, she’s too frail, there’s no way she could escape, she’d be swept away. Feeling your body begin to float.

Five days in and the power still flickers off and on. All but two of the bodies have been found. The sense of community is unrelenting—I was greeting with hugs at the grocery store. The ones with no damage to their life and property are suffering survivor’s guilt. The donations are being turned away, there are too many volunteers. How is that possible? Too many volunteers and donations? Unheard of.

But this is the south. That’s what we do.

We are Nashville.

And we still need your help. Please click here to see a list of Nashville charities and other ways you can donate. Thank you!

Wine of the Week: 2007 Castel Venus Nero D’Avola (When you’re stuck in the dark, it’s not a bad companion.)

27 thoughts on “Of Hypocrisy and Floods

  1. Cornelia Read

    JT, this is one of the most lovely and sad and moving things I’ve ever read. My prayers are with you and your city.

    And I apologize for posting at midnight–I was in such shock I thought it had just become Saturday.

    Reply
  2. JD Rhoades

    Glad you’re okay, and that the disaster relief worked like it was supposed to. Except for the police chief, and it looks like things succeeded in spite of him. What a tool.

    Reply
  3. Lesa Holstine

    I cant’ believe the tragedies you al have faced lately. JT, you and Nashville, Cornelia and her father, Lousie, the loss of her husband, a killing in front of her house, and the loss of her dog. I’m not going any further back to read. My heart goes out to all of you. I’m so sorry.

    Reply
  4. Louise Ure

    JT, what a remarkable account. I’m so glad that you — and Nashville — are as strong and loving and giving as you are. Stay safe.

    And Ms. C., my heart is with you today.

    Reply
  5. Eika

    Good luck. My prayers are with you.

    I’m sorry I can’t give more than the pittance I do anyway (blood to the red cross, etc.) but I’ll keep my fingers crossed things work out for all of you.

    Reply
  6. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I’m out of town working and haven’t been able to keep up with Murderati, but I knew you’d be writing about the floods today so I made sure to tune in. You wrote an amazing, moving account of your experience, JT. I’ve never experienced anything like that. I feel so fortunate. You and Randy are a great team–I can see how you worked together every step of the way. I’m sorry for the losses you and Nashville have suffered. So sad to see this happen to such a lovely city.

    Reply
  7. Alafair Burke

    What an account! Am I the only one amazed that you worried about working on your book during this? A true writer!

    Reply
  8. Anon

    It was a horrific disaster, and it’s amazing more life wasn’t lost, but I take issue with the comparison to New Orleans. Not just from you, JT, but from a lot of people. I’m sorry, but it comes off as smug.

    New Orleans is completely different. The people stayed because, hey, they’ve weathered hurricanes before. They had not, however, had the levees break in such a way before. And they are cut off; there is only one main road in or out, and it was a mess. People who stayed lived to regret that they had, especially when no help was coming. Nashville was taken totally by surprise.

    Why do you feel the need for Nashville to be "better" than New Orleans? It makes your otherwise well-written piece sound a bit preachy.

    Reply
  9. Louise Ure

    I disagree with you, Anon. There’s nothing preachy about the kind of fear brought about by a natural disaster, whether it’s in New Orleans or Nashville. And there is equal magic in the story of shared caring and community that JT writes about here.

    Reply
  10. Cornelia Read

    JT, thank you so much for your kindness about my posting out of turn last week. And for this beautiful, beautiful post of yours. Our hearts are with you all.

    Reply
  11. Anonymous

    Just needed to make sure that there is no confusion on "Anons" here. I did NOT post that comment about being preachy. Jeezus, J.T. What an ordeal you’ve had and thank you for the beautiful and frightening post you wrote in its aftermath.

    Murderati has truly offered life adventure to its bloggers this past year. Whew!! Everything from infidelity and divorce to foreclosures and career changes and illness and death and street violence and floods. What next? (Shit. Shouldn’t have asked THAT!!! NEVER MIND, GOD!! TAKE A BREAK!)

    Hell. Who needs your guys’ books ? The blog is ‘thrilling’ enough!

    Seriously. So bothered by all of the ‘tsouris’ (Yiddish word for ‘troubles’) you all have suffered.

    XXXOX

    Reply
  12. Jake Nantz

    Wow Anon, I didn’t get that sense at all. Then again, I’m not from New Orleans, so I saw it as many others did, through the window created by the media that basically showed the government letting the people of New Orleans down, and I kinda got the feeling that’s what JT was saying as well. Maybe it’s just me.

    Regardless JT, I’m glad you and Randy came out okay. Should I feel guilty that I felt a suspense story creeping into the back of my mind as you described the complete isolation, and therefore what a perfect opportunity for someone with a certain "moral flexibility" in their criminal makeup? I am truly glad more life wasn’t lost in the tragedy, at the very least.

    Reply
  13. Judy Wirzberger

    JT
    When we met at M is for Mystery, it was raiing quite hard for this part of the world. I can’t imagine the sheets of rain you received. You were in our thoughts with prayers for the best.

    Did I hear Taylor Jackson speaking about the Police Chief???? Ha!

    How nice to know that Nashville takes care of its own even down to a free cheeseburger! Your writing really gave me a sense of "being there." Your community, I am sure is learning a new normal.

    And Cornelia, let go of the guilt of posting on the wrong day. You posted when you needed us to hear you. Alone, you reached out for comfort, love and understanding. As the song goes, that’s what friends are for.

    Reply
  14. pari noskin taichert

    JT,
    What a poignant and important post. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

    I’m so happy that you and Randy came out of this safe and with your home intact. This was a, what?, 500-year flood. Astounding. What a gift that everyone has come together rather than let this tragedy pull them apart.

    That said, my prayers remain with you and the people of Nashville; it’s going to take a long time to repair much of the damage wrought.

    Reply
  15. JT Ellison

    Cornelia, of course. Of course! Our prayers are with you. xo

    Dusty, your characterization is spot on. He’s been a giant setback for our city, though his PR machine did a great job of making it look like he was the second coming. The mayor has just ordered an audit of the numbers throughout his tenure as chief, and they’re going to get a nasty, nasty surprise – our crime figures weren’t dropping like Serpas said. I’m just glad I addressed it in THE COLD ROOM – Taylor wasn’t at all happy with him.

    Lesa, it has been a rough go of it for us here lately, but we’re resilient. Thanks for your sweet thoughts!

    Rob, thank you. I wish we’d all gotten through unscathed.

    Reply
  16. Rebbie Macintyre

    JT, your post brought into stark relief the horrific ordeal that you and your neighbors are enduring. This is another testimony as to the power of words. Your account went far beyond what I was seeing on the news. Thank you for sharing, keep safe and my hearts and prayers are with you all.

    Reply
  17. JT Ellison

    Louise, thank you. We are cleaning up, and things will get back to normal sometime. I guess that’s how this all works.

    Eika, every bit helps. Thank you for yours. xo!

    Stephen, thank you. I’ve been astounded by how amazing everyone’s been. There were smiles in place of tears. Laughter instead of sorrow. These folks are incredibly strong, and I was humbled by them.

    Alafair – just scared to death of missing the deadline ; )

    Reply
  18. JT Ellison

    Anon – I respectfully disagree. This was the most expensive national disaster that wasn’t a hurricane in history. Where New Orleans had plenty of time to evacuate their citizens, they didn’t, and suffered the consequences. That is horrifying to me.

    We had no warning. The Army Corps of Engineers messed up the estimates. The dams were breached. The river joined and swept everything in their path away. We had a 1,000 year storm, and we got practically no coverage on the national news. We’re still buried in rubble. It’s going to take years for some areas to recover. So yes, the comparison to Katrina is appropriate. I wrote a separate account and pointed out that the FEMA disaster scale rated Katrina a 7 and Nashville a 5, and I’ve heard there will be a new estimation now that the true devastation has been uncovered.

    So am I being smug? Absolutely not, and forgive me for taking offense at your characterization of our response to this disaster.

    Reply
  19. JT Ellison

    Louise, thank you. You’re exactly right, fear is fear, regardless.

    Cornelia, again, of course! Thank you for your kind words!

    Anonymous – thank YOU. We’d never mistake you for another anon, don’t worry : )

    Jake, I already have the plot floating around my head. I just can’t avoid writing about this in some way. It was very scary, and it’s made an impression on me like nothing before. I’ve been in my share of hurricanes and tornadoes, and this was completely different. We just didn’t know when it was going to end.

    Judy, the rainfall was remarkable. It’s truly indescribable. And yes, there’s already been some info about our chief in the books. I just hope we can undo the damage he did quickly.

    Pari, they are saying it was a 1,000 year storm. Can you imagine? Someone said why did we all buy in a flood plain – we didn’t. That’s what was so wild, the water went into areas no one could have ever expected. Thank you for giving me the forum today!

    Rebbie, thank you. I’ve been so humbled by the response of our neighbors, helping tirelessly. It’s an amazing moment, and I’m glad I was able to share it with all of you!

    Reply
  20. Anonymous

    "We’d never mistake you for another anon"

    I am laughing. I guess I DO have an identifiably annoying ‘signature’ to my comments. If I were going to argue with you, J.T., I wouldn’t pass on the opportunity to be snarky. Being merely bitchy isn’t satisfying enough. Hah!

    : ) to you

    Keep us informed on how your community deals with this. As you mentioned, we don’t get much from the press.

    Reply
  21. Barbie

    JT, hugs to you! I hope things start to get stabilized again soon. You and your city are in my thoughts and prayers.

    You said: "and we got practically no coverage on the national news."

    I get that. I live in the Northeast of Brazil, which is the poorest region and mostly out of the country’s economical circle. The climate here is weird and we either get no rain at all or way too much rain. Last year, there was horrible flooding in the country part of the state (I live in the shore, so, I wasn’t that personally affected), which is the poorest part of the state, and thousands of people lost everything they had and since it’s an agricultural area, lost all means to get back on their feet. Lost really everything. There was no national media coverage AT ALL. None. There was some regional, people begging for help and nothing.

    Then, some posh, rich city in the South gets flooded and suddenly, there are hundreds of aid requests and the country is heartbroken. HEARTFREAKINGBROKEN? %#$# that. Oh, I’m sorry the rich people lost their fancy cars and their flat screens, and I truly AM sorry for people who lost their lives and their belongings, but seriously? It’s enraging. We were completely overlooked in the middle of a crisis. It’s like, no one cares, and the Northeast states don’t have the means to even begin to help.

    In the end, they raised a HUGE amount of money and now the posh, rich city is mostly back to its old ways, and people in the Northeast are still starving to death.

    Go figure.

    Reply
  22. Zoรซ Sharp

    JT

    What a remarkable account. Can’t wait to read the whole book where this storyline forms the spine. It will be an amazing and visceral piece of work.

    And I didn’t get the preachy tone, either – sorry Anon. What came through loud and clear was your frustration with the powers that be, and admiration for your neighbours.

    I never thought, when I wrote Four Meals Away From Anarchy that it would become a practical …

    Take heart, take care, take cover!

    Reply
  23. Nancy Laughlin

    J.T. I’m so glad you posted this. I’ve, and sure all of us have, been worried about you and how you survived the flood. I’m so glad you made it through okay, but very sorry for Nashville and the surrounding areas.
    Good bless.

    Reply
  24. Tom

    Very glad your home is on high ground, JT. It’s stunning what water can do. Toni got word out to the rest of us to send some help out to your neighbors.

    Reply
  25. KDJames / BCB

    JT, I’m so very glad your house had those three extra feet of elevation. Flooding is horrible and if you’ve never experienced it, you can’t comprehend the damage. Water has such force. Urban flood water is filthy and it’s damn near impossible to get rid of the mold afterward. Anything the least bit porous is destroyed. Honestly not sure what your fair city is going to do with all that trash.

    I didn’t have much to give, but made a contribution over at Do the Write Thing For Nashville — a remarkable effort by three Nashville writers to help their city. And as a result was informed by another writer via Twitter that Rhode Island had recently (early April) suffered significant flooding — and was pretty much ignored by the national media as well. Indeed, I hadn’t heard about it. Had to search to find the local coverage. Very sad commentary about what is considered "newsworthy" in this country. And in Brazil, apparently.

    And I, too, am a junior meteorologist. ๐Ÿ˜‰ My first ever hurricane experience was with Andrew in south Florida. We were far enough north that we escaped major physical damage, but it left a big imprint on me emotionally. Haven’t been caught off guard since.

    Reply
  26. JT Ellison

    Barbie, that’s just unreal. Reality, unfortunately, but unreal. Aren’t we all created equal? I guess not. So, so sad.

    Z, we took your post to heart and had some preparations in place, but not the right ones. I’ve learned my lesson that’s for sure. Just need to wait for generator prices to drop again…

    Nancy, thanks so much!!! We appreciate all the blessings.

    Tom, Toni’s impassioned plea has done so much for us – thank you for donating, and thanks, Miss Toni, for all your help too!

    KDBCB – I heard about the Rhode Island and Vermont flooding just this week too – just solidifies my thesis that ran on AOL News last week that without violence, loss doesn’t matter. Something’s wrong with our media if that’s the case.

    Reply

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