Knoxville News Sentinel: Editorial: Better flood warning system needed

Posted on August 16, 2010

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander indicated that the fallout from the flooding that hit Nashville and Middle and West Tennessee in May is far from over.

He is right, of course. There is a good bit of blame and finger-pointing to go around, but the Tennessee Republican wants a better system for alerting the public, and he should pursue that goal along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Weather Service and businesses and homeowners.

The Corps conceded a number of errors in its post-action report on the flooding. The report was released late last month in advance of a congressional hearing. Alexander, a member of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, called for the hearing to determine what went wrong and to seek whatever lessons could be learned from the disaster.

The floods indeed were devastating. Heavy rains swelled the Cumberland River and other rivers and tributaries. The amount of rainfall over the two-day period was more than three times greater than what was predicted.

Twenty-two people died as a result of the flooding. The raging waters displaced as many as 10,000 and destroyed more than 1,500 homes, causing nearly $2 billion in damages.

The Corps and the National Weather Service have been criticized for failing to recognize the severity of what Middle and West Tennessee was facing and for not alerting the public quickly enough about the potential danger.

The Corps listed a number of errors: poor communication, unread e-mails from the Weather Service, a shortage of essential personnel on duty and equipment failures. Those agencies were not the only ones that had problems.

In a story earlier this month, The (Nashville) Tennessean reported that the Corps, at least twice over the past three decades, told officials at Opryland and its current owner, Gaylord Entertainment Co., that, although its levees met minimum standards, the property remained at risk from a major flood. The newspaper's investigation followed a Freedom of Information Act request.

The latest warning came in 2003, but the Corps did not have the authority to require a private company to construct a higher levee. Those May floods topped the levee, sending as much as 10 feet of water into the hotel/convention center and other buildings - including the Grand Ole Opry House.

Alexander said the Corps' report and the hearing were a good beginning. He said he might request another hearing to see what it would take to develop a flood-warning system similar to the system used to alert the public about tornadoes. Tornadoes might be more spectacular, he said, "but floods kill more people and cause millions of dollars more damage."

All can take a cue from the Tennessee Valley Authority's recent "communications flood exercise," which focuses less on the technical elements of controlling flooding and more on getting word to those who could be most affected by the high waters. The communications aspect of the exercise was conducted as a response to the flooding in Middle and West Tennessee.

Alexander is in a good position to bird-dog the effort. In an age where we depend heavily on technology to keep us informed and keep us safe, Mother Nature can still throw a dangerous curve, making humans' efforts look miniscule.

That only means we should redouble our plans to protect the people and possessions we hold dear.