Alexander Opening Statement at Senate Hearing on 2010 Tennessee Flood

“The main goal of this hearing is to find out what happened on April 30, May 1, and May 2 and what lessons can be learned as we prepare for future floods.” – Lamar Alexander

Posted on July 22, 2010

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) this morning gave the following remarks as his opening statement during the hearing “Lessons from the 2010 Tennessee Flood” of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development: 

“There are two reasons in my view for having this hearing. The first is to remind ourselves and the nation of what a disaster this was. This is the largest natural disaster in this country since President Obama took office and FEMA tells me that it’s been since 2008 that any disaster in this country has required as much money or attention as this one has. It’s been overshadowed by the oil spill which is tragic but is not a natural disaster.  I’ve heard from many people around the country—and I would say this to those who are here from Tennessee—about how proud the country is of the response Tennesseans have had to the flood.  Instead of looting and complaining, Tennesseans have been cleaning up and helping each other and have made quite a name for themselves around the country in terms of response to a tragedy.

“The executive summary of the After Action Report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says it this way: ‘A 36-hour rainfall event on the first weekend of May of this year produced record flooding far greater than a thousand-year rain event.’ They describe the management of the waters as dynamic and dangerous, and all of us from different perspectives—from Nashville to Millington, Clarksville to Ashland City—have seen the incredible results. These are the photographs from Nashville and Millington. Opryland Hotel had 10 feet of water. Shortly after 1,500 people were evacuated.  Senator Corker and I and all the members of Congress went to various places seeing what had happened.

“Forty-six counties were declared disaster areas. Sixty-four thousand Tennesseans in just the last two-and-a-half months have registered with FEMA to receive aid. The aid that has come to them has been nearly a quarter billion dollars. Many Tennesseans simply didn’t ask for any aid; they just fixed their basements up, spent their own money and went about their way. There’s a lot more remaining to be done.

“We saw some examples of heroism, for example in Clarksville, where the soldiers took a day off and cleaned up three communities. Congressman Blackburn and I saw that.  Senator Corker and I also saw communities coming together when we visited Millington and Memphis.

“This is about Tennessee’s flood in 2010, but as Senator Dorgan and Senator Bennett pointed out, flooding is a national phenomenon. Three out of four of federally declared disasters in this country over the last five years have been floods. So it’s what we work with when we talk about disasters.

“One of the unfortunate things is that many in the Nashville area didn’t know about flood insurance. Many are eligible; very few had it. That’s one of the lessons we need to work on.

“The main goal of this hearing is to find out what happened on April 30, May 1, and May 2 and what lessons can be learned as we prepare for future floods.

“The Army Corps of Engineers’ After Action Report will be presented for the first time today. We look forward to getting answers. Some of the questions that are likely to be asked are: Could water levels have been lower at Old Hickory Dam? And if they had been lower would that have resulted in less water in downtown Nashville? Could there have been better forecast of the Corps of Engineers and the National Weather Service had they understood each other better? The After Action Report very candidly says there was a lack of communication there based on a lack of understanding of each other’s procedures.

“What was the effect of a lack of equipment? For 11 hours the Internet was down during the height of the flood. And what difference did that make in letting people know what was coming in terms of flood levels so that might have saved valuable treasures, their homes, or even their lives?

“We’ve done a great job with forecasting tornadoes and improving that forecast. The National Weather Service and other agencies have been working with broadcasters who are also here today.  If you turn on the TV, oftentimes they can tell you that a tornado is coming down your street 15 minutes before it’s going to hit your house. That wasn’t true ten years ago. There have been great advances in not only gathering accurate information, but in providing information to people in a timely and accurate matter so that they can take action to prevent damage and save their lives. Can we do that same kind of thing with a different phenomenon, and that is rising water?

“There e questions about personnel. This happened on a weekend, and an agency that says it doesn’t have many staff members to begin with had to do deal with it. They weren’t there, some of them. Those who were, in some cases, acted heroically, and some had a hard time getting back to do anything because they were going through flood waters.

“So what are the lessons that we can learn from this tragedy to make sure that when flooding comes again, as it surely will, that we can save more property and perhaps save more lives?

“Mr. Chairman, those are some of the questions that we’ll have. I’m grateful for everyone coming. We hope to conclude this by noon because we have votes in the Senate, and so I have a lot of questions I won’t be able to ask, but I’ll submit them to the witnesses who are here today. I know that we’ll try to keep witnesses to a reasonable amount of time to hear their stories so that we can get the full story on the record. This would be, I’d say Mr. Chairman, the first step in a straight-down-the-middle effort to find out what happened and what lessons we can learn for the future.”