Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -- Tennessee Flooding

Tennesseans Helping Tennesseans

Posted on May 10, 2010

Mr. President, there is no bigger, no more heart-wrenching, no more inspiring story today than what happened in Nashville in the 48 hours on May 1 and 2, over that weekend, when 2 to 4 inches of rain were expected and up to 17 inches came. As a result of that--from the Opryland Hotel outside Nashville to the Millington naval station near Memphis--all across Tennessee there have been devastating floods.

   It is, according to the Weather Service, a 1,000-year rainfall event. I do not know how anybody knows what a 1,000-year rainfall event is--that is a long time--but this was not a 20-year flood or a 100-year flood, this was a 1,000-year rainfall event that overtook the people of Tennessee.

   As a result, our Governor, Phil Bredesen, has asked the President to identify 52 counties--from the Nashville area to all the way across our State to the Mississippi River--as disaster areas. The President has responded swiftly. Forty-two of those 52 counties have been designated as disaster areas.

   Some people say to me: Well, there has not been so much news about this Tennessee flood. There are two reasons for it. One is, there has been a lot of other news. Greece has been collapsing. A bomber tried to blow up Times Square. There is turmoil over immigration in Arizona. There is the gulf oilspill which threatens to be the worst in history.

   But it is important for the American people to know the Tennessee flood last weekend is by far the largest disaster in our country since President Obama came into office, except for the oilspill in the Gulf of Mexico, and it may be that the Tennessee flood affects more people than what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico.

   The other reason we have not heard so much about it is this: Tennesseans have been busy cleaning up and helping each other instead of complaining and looting. So people are hurt. Thousands of people are hurt. But they are going about their business helping themselves and helping others in remarkable and inspiring ways.

   I have many images from over the last few days of the visits I have made in Tennessee: being at the Bellevue Community Center on Saturday morning, where there were dozens of volunteers in red T-shirts that were headed out in teams to help people in that area whose homes have been devastated; the image of 502 soldiers from Fort Campbell--those are the most deployed soldiers in America--yet the commanding officer gave them a day's leave, and 502 of them formed teams and cleaned up three neighborhoods in Clarksville-Montgomery County.

   I spent an hour that same day with Mayor Bowers and Congresswoman Blackburn and the team that is responding in Montgomery County, and it is an impressive response. I would say the same for Governor Bredesen of Tennessee and Mayor Dean of Nashville, whose metro services have worked overtime.

   This is true all the way across our State to Dyer County--badly hurt; thousands of people have homes damaged there--to the Navy's principal personnel and recruiting station at Millington, just outside Memphis, where the Secretary of the Navy saw personally, on Saturday, the damage that had been done there.

   According to the Tennessean, the American Red Cross had recorded more than 1,300 volunteers by Friday. Whole congregations, on Sunday, showed up en masse to help at places such as Cross Point Community Church, which had more than 1,600 members of the congregation on Saturday. Hands-On Nashville saw more than 5,100 volunteers log more than 19,000 hours to help out across the city by Saturday.

   Our own church, Westminster Presbyterian Church, in Nashville--we had a lot of people going down to help with Katrina and in Gulfport after those disasters--will be the center for people coming in to help the people in Tennessee. If you go through Nashville today--or other parts of Tennessee, all the way down to Memphis--you will see thousands of front yards littered with damage from the basements of homes.

   FEMA has been on the ground from the beginning, and I thank them for their prompt response. Unfortunately, we have worked with them before on tornadoes and other disasters, so they know Tennessee pretty well. By Saturday morning, 16,000 persons in Tennessee had registered with FEMA, and there had already been 750 inspections.

   I talked with the sheriff of Montgomery County Saturday night. He was flooded out, but he had been in touch with FEMA. He was already registered. He had arranged for his inspection. He was very well satisfied by that.

   Channel 4--Nashville television--had a telethon on Thursday night. Vince Gill and a group of stars raised $2 million in the Nashville area for the victims of the flood. Taylor Swift gave $500,000. Bud Adams of the Titans gave $400,000. So people in large and small ways are pouring out their hearts and their help and their money to help one another.

   As we look forward--this is not a time to complain. I did not hear anybody complain this past week. As I said before, maybe that is why there is not so much news about this. But as we look ahead, I want to make sure in the future we make sure we do the best possible job of handling floods, particularly that we have clear and correct information about the rising water, and that we communicate it as broadly as we should.

   We have learned how to do that with tornadoes. Using the media, we can tell you whether a tornado is coming across your house in 14 minutes in a remarkable set of cooperation between the National Weather Service and the media broadcasters.

   I have asked Chairman Boxer and Ranking Member Inhofe of our committee, the Environment and Public Works Committee, to look at perhaps holding a hearing on how well the Army Corps of Engineers and other Federal agencies and State agencies are delivering accurate, clear information to businesses and individuals who might be hurt by the rising water.

   This morning, I flew up to Nashville with a person from Sumner County who was trapped in a Chevrolet Blazer with her 12-year-old son and her husband and nearly killed except they were rescued by emergency services. Another person on the plane lives on a high hill near River Road, and the National Guard helicopters landed four times in her front yard to rescue 50 people who could not get out except in that way.

   I have talked with Colin Reed, who is the chief executive officer of the Opryland Hotel, who had to make an evacuation order. They evacuated 1,500 guests rather than risk what happened during Katrina because the water suddenly came into the Opryland Hotel--many people are familiar with that--and the water became 10 feet high. It is still several feet high there. So there is a lot of long-term damage, and I want to make sure we have clear and consistent information.

   I would have to add, I thank the Congress for approving my request over the last few years for additional funding to make two of the four dams on the Cumberland River safer. If they had not been made safer, their water levels would have been lower and tons more water would have poured into the Cumberland River, creating millions of more dollars of damages and perhaps taking lives.

   I am simply here this morning to say I am very proud of Tennessee, from Nashville to Memphis. There is no bigger, more heart-wrenching, more inspiring story than of these thousands of Tennesseans who have suffered a 1,000-year flood, thousands of whom have losses they understand will not be fully made whole. But they are busy--not looting, not complaining--they are cleaning up and they are helping one another.

   As the days go on, I will be meeting with Senator Inouye and Senator Cochran to make certain the Federal accounts that fund FEMA, economic development, the Community Development Block Grant, and other projects and accounts in the Federal Government that respond to natural disasters have enough money in them to meet the Federal part of the responsibility. But so far the President, his Cabinet, and others have been doing very well.

   The Governor of Tennessee and the mayors across our State have been doing extraordinarily well. But the people, who are the real heroines and heroes, are the men and women of Tennessee who have been hurt, or their neighbors who have been busy cleaning up and helping one another.

   I thank the Acting President pro tempore, and yield the floor.