Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -- Thousand-Year Rain

Posted on May 3, 2010

Mr. President, Nashville and middle Tennessee have been hit with what the Corps of Engineers officials tell us is a thousand-year rain event--in a thousand years, we wouldn't expect to have this much rain--and it is providing enormous hardship to the people not just of Nashville and Davidson County but counties in and around Nashville. I wish to give a brief report on what we know about that, what Senator Corker and I and Congressman Cooper and the other Members of Congress from that region are doing, working together, so the people of our area can know what to expect.  

   There is a telephone number to call, and I would like to give it. It is 615-862-8574. It is a telephone number for people in the Nashville-middle Tennessee area who are concerned about what to do, who have an emergency, and who want information about what help may be available to them--615-862-8574.

    The Cumberland River and the Harpeth River are the two rivers that are causing most of the problem, and we have been waiting all day for the Cumberland River, which runs through Nashville on up to Clarksville, to crest. That crest hasn't happened yet, and the latest predictions are, it might happen around 7 o'clock. It may be later.  

   In the meantime, the Corps of Engineers, with whom we are working, is trying hard to minimize the damage from the lakes they are responsible for. There are three major lakes in the middle Tennessee region: Old Hickory, Percy Priest, and Center Hill. These lakes hold the water, of course. If the Corps of Engineers releases water from the overflow of these lakes, that puts more water into the Cumberland River and that floods Nashville more.  

   This is the latest report on those three lakes. The Corps is currently not releasing water from Percy Priest Lake, and they have told us they will not release water from Percy Priest Lake until the river crests. This is important information for people in downtown Nashville. First Avenue, Second Avenue both have a lot of water. Some of the big buildings, the Pinnacle Building, has a lot of water. The fact that the Corps is not releasing water from Percy Priest Lake until the river crests is an important piece of information.

   The water level, on the other hand, at Old Hickory Lake is at historic levels, and the Corps is releasing water from Old Hickory Lake but only when absolutely necessary to maintain the stability of the Old Hickory Dam. Fortunately, the Corps is not having to release water from the third lake, the Center Hill Lake. It has some room to spare.  

   This is an example of Congress and the Federal Government doing something right because, over the last several years, we have added funds to the appropriations bills--I have and others as well--in order to improve the safety of Center Hill Dam. Because up until the last couple years, the water level had to be lowered because the dam was weak. If the dam was as weak as it was 2 or 3 years ago, the Corps of Engineers would have had to be releasing a lot more water from Center Hill Lake into the Cumberland River, causing more flooding in Nashville.  

   Over the weekend, we have been in touch with Governor Bredesen's office and Mayor Dean's office and they are doing a first-rate job. Part of my responsibility is to work with Governor Bredesen, and over the last several years, on disasters as they occur, such as the tornado in Macon County, near Nashville, the tornadoes in Jackson and Madison County. The Governor and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency--I used to be in charge of that agency when I was Governor--have a first-rate operation there, and they have been working hard ever since the rains hit.  

   The Federal Emergency Management Agency has a liaison stationed at the TEMA--the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency--office, and they are working well together. What those people are doing is using every available resource in support of State and local efforts to try to rescue people, to make life easier, to get the water plant running again, and to begin to assess what the damage is, which is where the Federal Government generally can help.  

   As I mentioned, this is not just Nashville that is involved. Macon County, Williamson County, Montgomery County, Cheatham County--all the counties right around Nashville up to Clarksville are involved. My chief of staff from Washington has been onsite in Nashville since last night, my State field director has been onsite since last night as well, and they are busy dealing with the local officials. I am prepared to go whenever it would be helpful, but there is no need for me to go and get in the way if there is nothing for me to do. Right now, the best thing for me to do, along with Senator Corker and Congressman Cooper, is to stay in touch with the Governor's office and the Mayor's office and be ready to help with a disaster request when it is made.  

   When the Governor makes a disaster request, the procedure is, we then go to work to help persuade the President--and I am sure he will act as promptly as he can--to approve that disaster. There are two or three kinds of help that may be forthcoming. One would be public assistance for debris removal, to repair public buildings that are damaged, water or sewer facilities or infrastructure. For example, one of the major water treatment plants is down, and the mayor has asked Nashvillians to conserve water. That may be an area where Federal support will be available to help.  

   Then there is the matter of private assistance. Temporary housing may be available. There may be loans available to businesses that are hurt and other forms of assistance to individuals and households.  

   This is a major event in our city. The Opryland Hotel--one of the biggest hotels anywhere in America--has had to empty itself, and it has 1,500 residents who are staying in a high school. We are told it may be several months before the Opryland Hotel is able to function again. We hope not because its tax revenues provide 25 percent of all the hotel-motel tax revenues for the city, and that would come at a difficult time.  

   So my purpose on the floor today is simply to express my concern to the residents of the city where we live--in Nashville, TN--and to all others who might be affected in the middle Tennessee area and to let them know I believe Governor Bredesen and the mayor are doing a first-rate job in responding to the immediate requests, that the Federal and State management agencies are hard at work, that there is a telephone number that individual Tennesseans who have questions can call--it is 615-862-8574--and that after getting themselves and their families in order, the best thing to do is to document your losses so when the Governor makes his request for emergency disaster assistance and the President approves it, those losses can be proven and that help can come more quickly.  

   The Governor will move as swiftly as he can on this. Our experience is, it is better to be complete than quick because we want to make sure, when the request comes in, that it involves everybody, that it involves all the claims, that they are properly documented. That has been our experience before. So that is my report to the people of middle Tennessee. I want them to know I care about it, that I am on the phone about it, we have staff members on site, and I believe the Governor and the mayor and the Federal and State emergency agencies are doing all they can and we can hope for the best as the Cumberland River crests, we hope sooner rather than later.  

   I yield the floor, and I suggest the absence of a quorum.