Capitol View Commentary: May 6, 2010

Capitol View Commentary: May 6, 2010

CREATED May 6, 2010

By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice-President, DVL Public Relations & Advertising
May 6, 2010

I am not writing about politics this week.

I don't really care much about that right now.

Let the General Assembly pass another "guns in bars or wherever" law while the state drowns in flood waters and citizens struggle to pull their lives back together, clean up the damage and bury their dead.

What I care about is Nashville and how our city and much of our state is hurting right now.

This is a very special place to me. Nashville is the city where I was born and raised. It's where I went to school, kindergarten through college. It's where I got married and brought up my two daughters.  It's where I have made my livelihood in public relations, TV and politics for nearly four decades. In fact, except for about 3 months of my life just after high school, this is where I have always lived along with my Nolan ancestors dating back almost 130 years.

Nashville and indeed much of this state is hurting badly and will be for months to come. In terms of the Nashville community, we've been dealt the greatest disaster in our history. Nobody here has ever seen anything like it. Mayor Karl Dean estimates there's a billion dollars in damages and we have just started counting.  It deeply pains everyone to observe the destruction of these storms and floods; to see the heartbreak of those who have lost loved ones; the hundreds who have lost their homes and all their possessions. Having myself not even lost power during this epic event, I feel almost guilty that my family has been this fortunate. But I will add this: I have never prouder to live here. Let me explain.

In recent years I have been so proud to see Nashville take its rightful place as a major, dynamic city in our nation. It is wonderful to see all the people who have moved here and who have fallen in love with this community as my forefathers did so many years ago. It has been with great pride that I took visitors around town to see the Opryland Hotel, LP Field, the Schermerhorn Symphony Hall, the Bridgestone Arena, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the tourist attractions and restaurants on 2nd Avenue and Historic Broadway.  Even my children who grew up thinking they were living in something of a "hick town," now know that Nashville is really cool.

To see these Nashville landmarks flooded out and damaged has been devastating and economically we will struggle to come back. That's particularly true with the Opryland Hotel likely closed for up to six months for repairs. That facility plays a major role in our tourism and convention industry, including the funding for the new convention center downtown. Hopefully it won't be off line long enough to create any long-term problems. And hopefully, Opryland will rebuild and reopen.

But regardless of all these challenges, there is no doubt. Nashville will come back….and come back better and stronger than ever!

You know why? It's because when I drove my visitors around to show them all our new buildings and amenities across the community, I was missing what makes Nashville truly great. It's our people and our can-do, get-it- done, volunteer spirit. Never was that shown more clearly than in this community's response to this disaster.

Nashville is a generous town. We have supported with our treasure the relief efforts that followed 9/11, the East Asian Tsunami, Katrina, the recent earthquake in Haiti and many other disaster relief fund raising campaigns. Now we are being challenged to do it at home, and from what I see looking at all the donated items and money flooding into the local relief shelters, this city is responding strongly again.

But there are signs of concern, that some folks just don't get it. But hopefully for every person who washes a car or waters a lawn, there are dozens who are conserving our precious liquid resources. Let's pray it will be enough to keep our fresh water supply flowing for the duration of this crisis. But it will be very much touch and go. Our water reserves remain critically low as long as one of the city's water treatment plants remains out of service due to the flooding.

Meanwhile, for all those who "sightsee" through flood-ravaged areas, fortunately there seem to be many more volunteers showing up there to help those who have lost everything as they begin a painful cleanup process (that is, if they can get to their homes, some of which remain under water).

Finally, there has been some looting and crime. You have be about the lowest life form around to steal from those suffering through a calamity like this, but fortunately these activities has been somewhat isolated and, again, you can see neighbors banning together with law enforcement to protect their communities. Given what has sometimes occurred in other major urban areas after catastrophes like this, Nashville appears quite remarkable.

It's always easy to criticize our elected leaders and government workers. But in this situation they have responded magnificently. Mayor Karl Dean has been a shining light from the earliest moments of this disaster. His calm, but firm demeanor, and his leadership, along with his well-prepared team of city department heads, has served Metro well in recent days, particularly in making their frequent TV updates to the community.

The mayor is also making a smart move asking the Metro Council to waive codes and construction fees to help those starting to rebuild, along with providing free bottled water to those who need it, and free transportation on MTA so folks can get around more easily (although MTA remains on a limited schedule).  The Mayor is also making quick efforts to get public works crews out so they can assess road and other infrastructure damage. They'll also be with picking up storm trash. All these steps will go a long way to boost spirits and speed the recovery process. 

Meanwhile, our emergency first-responders, our water services employees, and so many others (including the Sheriff's department mobilizing its inmates to keep Metro's lone remaining water plant safe) have really made it happen out in the field: performing hundreds of water rescues; restoring electrical power; keeping our water supply safe and flowing, and trying to bring some order out of the chaos of just trying to get around in the city by car the last several days. For Police Chief Ronal Serpas, now returning to his hometown of New Orleans to become chief there, let it be said that his final days in Nashville were among his own, and his department's, finest hours of service to the citizens of this community.

 And it's not just in Metro that this is happening. It is also occurring in counties and cities all across Middle Tennessee and across the state, as county and city employees along with many who work for local utilities districts, have made heroic efforts to first, rescue those in peril, then help begin the process of recovery, all while keeping important services going. It has perhaps been most difficult in Hickman County which was cut off from all communications, both inside and outside the county, for several days.

I know how tough things have been first hand by watching the job being done by one of my clients, the Harpeth Valley Utilities District, which has been working round the clock to keep its system up and operating despite a loss of electrical power for several days and flood waters that almost swamped its water treatment plant.  These heroic efforts have meant thousands of people in Davidson, Cheatham and Williamson Counties still have potable water in their homes and businesses, avoiding having to boil their water or rely on bottled water. But again, it is up to us. We MUST conserve. And after dipping as low as just 37% of reserves remaining, now our Metro water supply is rising again. Keep it up!   

State and federal officials have responded to the call as well.  Governor Phil Bredesen seemed to be a bit late and maybe not fully briefed when he held his first meeting with reporters on Sunday. That was a bit at odds from the way he performed as Nashville's Mayor during the 1998 tornado. But he and his staff quickly rallied, particularly in getting the federal disaster requests and preliminary damage estimates to Washington in a hurry where the Obama Administration (despite major distractions from the Gulf Coast oil spill disaster and the failed terrorist bombing attempt in Times Square in New York City) managed to turn around approval for Nashville and now 20 other counties within days (as of Thursday afternoon May 6).

 In fact, approval of Nashville's aide request along with those from three other counties came within less than 24 hours after it was submitted. That's pretty remarkable and an indication of what a great job the Governor's office did. Look for many more, if not all of the 52 counties where assistance has been requested to be added to approved list in coming days. That's great news, but very sobering when you realize 52 counties is well more than half of all the counties in this state (95).   

These federal disaster dollars won't be a panacea, but they will be very helpful to the recovery especially for many trying to get their businesses restarted and their homes repaired. Congressman Jim Cooper and our two Senators (Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker) have also done their parts in the recovery process, and no doubt stand ready to continue to help bring aid to the area. It's a recovery process which won't be pretty and will seem to take forever, especially for those waiting for a check or repairs to be done.  Many will find "flood insurance" not be what they expected in terms of what damage is covered, and there federal aid could be helpful in bridging some of the gap. 

In the months and weeks to come, I am sure there will be setbacks and disappointments. I also suspect (as we did after the big floods of 1975 & 1979) we will have new debates about how we ought to regulate growth and development along our many rivers and creeks. While I don't know what you can do to prevent a 500-1000-year flood catastrophe like this with a record 13+ inches of rain in two days time, I am sure this dialogue will occur.

Already some of the potential political recriminations are beginning to surface from the flooding. Senator Alexander has issued a news release asking the question" "What can we do better?" The Senator seems concerned about the role of the federal Army Corps of Engineers, specifically, how it handled its dams during the flooding.  

While making no specific accusations, here's what the Senator said: "One of the things we might be able to do better in the event of a disaster like this is to have clear, correct and consistent information from the Army Corps of Engineers about the release of water from the Old Hickory and Percy Priest dams. It is too early to say whether the information we did receive was unclear, incorrect or inconsistent, but we should address whether more information about the rise of floodwaters on the Cumberland River to the community might have saved millions of dollars in damages."        

This does seem to mesh with information I received from one well-placed source who said Mayor Dean almost lost it when it when he heard early in the week that the Corps planned to open its dams and release another 5 feet of water downriver, a move that would have raised the floods much higher downtown, greatly adding to the destruction. Stay tuned for more on this. 

But regardless of the fights to come, I am sure that this community will emerge from this time of trials and tribulations an ever greater place to live and call home. Because that's just the way we are in Nashville!

You can ignore us (as some in the national media did for a few days, distracted by the attempted terrorist attack and the Gulf Coast oil spill). But we can never be defeated, and together, as a community, there is nothing we cannot accomplish!

Nashville has a long history of being able to bounce back better than ever. We've made it back from the tornadoes of 1998 and 1933, as well as the Great East Nashville Fire in 1916. The recent flooding downtown is reminiscent of the floods that often ravaged our area back in the 1920s and ‘30s before TVA and its system of dams were built for flood control. Those dams, which took a lot of political will and courage to get approved in Washington many years ago, have helped Nashville prosper. Even with all the questions surfacing now about how these dams were operated during the flood, without them, you don't want think about how bad things might have been this time.

Looking further back in our history, we are a city that suffered through the longest occupation in American history during the Civil War with one of the last major battles fought here, and several other battles fought nearby. We also survived, as did the rest of the country, the 1919 flu epidemic losing 3500 citizens locally.

So our history shows we know how to handle adversity. While we have never faced anything quite like this, I know Nashville will rise and sing again.

How tragically appropriate it was to see Nashville's most enduring symbol to the nation and the world, the Grand Ole Opry, reach back into its own history by holding its first post-flood performance at the War Memorial Auditorium downtown.  That's a venue The Opry played even before it called the Ryman Auditorium home (fortunately the Ryman survives undamaged, and will host future Opry shows while the current Opry House is repaired).

 But even with the current Opry House under water in Pennington Bend, and many precious artifacts and other memorabilia there lost in the flood waters, this War Memorial performance was clearly a statement by the Opry (and in some ways by all of Nashville) that the circle will not be broken: that we will reach back in our history, and once again find a way to make Nashville even better.

It will happen.                  


Things have been a little too crazy this week at Channel 5 to tape a new INSIDE POLITICS show. After doing an absolutely incredible job in covering the storms and floods, I think everyone is a little worn out down there. And who can blame them, after not only battling the outside elements, but a flood in their own newsroom, all the while keeping everyone up to the date on the latest developments. Amazing!

I have never been prouder to be associated with the incredible team at NEWSCHANNEL5! In fact, I think all the Nashville media has done a great job in covering this historic disaster.

We do have a very appropriate show for INSIDE POLITICS this week. It is an encore performance of our interview with Rebecca Stubbs Harris who has written a most interesting biography of former Nashville Congressman, the late J. Percy Priest. Without his political will and courage, the TVA dams that protected us from this flood being many times worse, would have never been built. One dam even bears his name posthumously.

Congressman Priest had an eventful life, both before and during his time in public service. That's particularly true of how he got elected to Congress. That's why the book is entitled J. PERCY PRIEST & HIS AMAZING RACE. I highly recommend both the book and watching this week's INSIDE POLITICS show.

Our air time on the main channel, WTVF-TV, will be at 5:00 a.m. Sunday morning (May 9). We will also appear several times on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS (Comcast & Charter cable channels 250 & Channel 5's 5.2 over-the-air digital channel) first at 7:00 p.m. Friday (May 7), then 5:00 a.m. & 5:30 p.m. Saturday (May 8) and 5:00 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Sunday (May 9).

Join us!