Road to Recovery

Nashville and the Opryland Hotel, for years hosts to the Pumper & Cleaner Environmental Expo, are making their way back from the disastrous flooding that struck last May
Road to Recovery

Readers of Cleaner barely would have recognized the Gaylord Opryland Hotel after the rains and floods that hit Nashville on the weekend of May 1-2.

Five months later, the businesses damaged by the flood have recovered or are rebuilding, and the City of Nashville is diligently inspecting its water and sewer infrastructure. Meanwhile, some members of the Pumper and Cleaner sectors had roles in the cleanup in the weeks immediately after the storm.

Almost underwater

The Opryland, Nashville’s largest hotel and for years the site of the Pumper & Cleaner Environmental Expo, was among the sites hit hardest. Hotel management evacuated about 1,500 guests from the 2,881 rooms the night of May 2-3 before the Cumberland River breached a levee and inundated the lobby, restaurants, atrium, ground floor exhibition space and 117 guest rooms.

Water also covered the stage, seating, dressing rooms and retail area of the neighboring Grand Ole Opry and damaged stores in the Opry Mills shopping mall nearby. The flood also affected parts of First and Second Avenues downtown, knocked out power to parts of the downtown area, and filled two million feet of sewer mains.

By Monday, May 3, the river topped levees and sent as much as 10 feet of muddy water through thousands of homes and businesses. Nashville’s Metropolitan Planning office estimates the flood damaged 16,800 homes affecting 40,000 people. The Chamber of Commerce reported that more than 2,700 businesses in 36 Zip codes took varying degrees of damage.

The flood also forced Metro Water Services to shut down one of its two water treatment plants and one of its three wastewater treatment plants for nearly four weeks. Water service was temporarily reduced in some areas, but extra water sampling and chlorine applications kept officials from having to issue boil orders, according to Hal Balthrop, assistant director.

Rebuilding under way

By late June, rebuilding was well under way at the Opry (scheduled to reopen Oct. 2) and the Opryland Hotel (Nov. 15). The repair and rebuilding costs for both were estimated at up to $179 million. Some 1,743 Opryland resort complex employees were laid off until fall.

Gaylord Hotel officials reported on June 24 that 1,200 trash bins of waterlogged drywall, carpet and other materials had been removed from the hotel. The renovation includes five VIP suites that weren’t flood damaged but were due for upgrades. “Folks are extremely busy down here,” says Brian Abrahamson, a Gaylord spokesman.

Renovation at the 1.2-million-square-foot Opry Mills mall started in June, and as of late July, owners had not yet set a date for reopening. Other businesses and attractions recovered within a few weeks. The General Jackson showboat on the river and the Wildhorse Saloon on Second Avenue reopened on June 5.

On the municipal side, the staff at Metro Water Services worked what turned out to be a solid month of rotating 12-hour shifts until Memorial Day. “May was just one big work day,” Balthrop says. An incident command center responded to every water leak to curb losses.

Lending a hand

Septic service and drain cleaning and plumbing contractors pitched in to help with the immediate recovery. Among them was Elite Septic Tank Service of Nashville, where employees were busy for two weeks pumping tanks, jetting sewer lines and servicing grease traps.

“We’ve had floods before, but nothing like this,” says co-owner Kenny Shores. The company’s three service trucks and five technicians kept up with the demand, but to handle the rush of calls, the Elite crew had to assemble another jetter from an engine, a hose and a tank on hand in the shop. “We had everything sitting around – we were just lucky,” Shores says.

By June, the cleanup was over and the company turned to repairing flood-damaged septic systems. Shores predicts some will have to be replaced.

Meanwhile, Aaron Miller, owner of Mr. Rooter of Nashville, was at a wedding in Georgia when an employee called his cell phone on Saturday, May 1, saying, “You won’t believe this, but there’s a house floating down I-24.”

Miller called in crews from the Mr. Rooter franchise in Chattanooga as he made a beeline for home. “It was all hands on deck,” he says. “The river got within five feet of our office and shop. We moved all the trucks and equipment to a supermarket parking lot until we knew the shop was safe.” The flood knocked out the shop’s phone service for two weeks, so calls were routed through the Mr. Rooter national call center.

Exhausting work

The Nashville and Chattanooga crews doubled the Mr. Rooter workforce to nearly 25. They brought in another vacuum truck, jetters, pumps and a hydroscrubber for smaller drains for what turned into a solid two weeks of basement pumping and drain cleaning.

“We all just basically worked until we were exhausted,” Miller says. “Initially we were pumping basements. It was kind of a mad dash at first. Then, it was line jetting and drain cleaning – mud, debris, everything imaginable down the drains.”

The service call volume gradually returned to normal by early June. He expects to pick up some insurance-related, flood-damage work throughout the year. “It was kind of a mixed blessing,” he says. “It was a nice financial boost for us, but it was also very hard on a lot of people. I’m glad we were able to be there for people who needed help.”

The flood meant 16-hour days for Ron Arvin, owner of Arvin’s Plumbing of Mount Juliet. “You couldn’t find a pump anywhere that Monday after the storm,” he says. “Fortunately, I have three. We went right to work.”

It wasn’t unusual to see four feet of water in basements and crawl spaces. “I’ve heard it over and over,” says Arvin. “People say they’ve lived in the same place for 20 years and never had water until now. One customer had water coming in from 800 feet away from a lake. He thinks it may have followed an underground spring or a cavern.”

By early June, the focus changed from pumping basements and replacing water heaters to correcting improperly installed drains that had allowed rainwater to enter the sanitary sewers.

‘A marathon’

As the floodwaters went down, Nashville business and civic leaders realized that cleaning and rebuilding would be a long process. Soon after the flood, the Nashville Metro government created a Business Response Team coordinated by the Chamber of Commerce to help businesses of all sizes.

In late May, the Chamber launched a “Nashville Open for Business,” national publicity and advertising campaign to urge potential summer visitors not to change their plans. The city’s tourism and convention industry took the biggest hit because of the loss of Gaylord Opryland, which has 10 percent of the area’s hotel rooms.

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” says Stephanie Pepper, Chamber public relations manager. “You can come into Nashville and not see any flood damage, but pockets of the city were hit very hard.” Response Team volunteers started visiting businesses during the week of June 14 to see what help they needed to get back on their feet.

Meanwhile, Metro Water in late June started inspecting the 2 million feet of sewer mains, from 8 to 60 inches, that were covered by floodwater. Balthrop expects that to take 18 months, and he believes it will show that the sewers came through in good shape, thanks to the agency’s routine maintenance program.

Ignored nationally

As bad as the flooding seemed to Nashville residents, it was overshadowed by other national news, including the start of the oil well leak in the Gulf of Mexico and a car bomb discovered in New York City’s Times Square.

“For us, it was a really big deal,” says Miller. “But to the rest of the country, it seemed to be under the radar.” Balthrop doesn’t think the lack of attention really matters.

“Nashville, by nature, is a little humble,” he says. “We all just rolled up our sleeves and went to work.”


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