For Stephanie Farmer and her daughter Kasondra, the world is divided into B.F. and A.F.
Before the flood. After the flood.
Before the flood, they had a home near the banks of Richland Creek. They had furniture, and family photos and rooms filled with 18 years’ worth of memories. Even after a year, they sometimes find themselves searching for something — a journal, a toy, a pair of shoes — and realize that was something they had B.F. And now it’s gone.
It was a year ago today(may 1) that the torrential rain began, leading to historic, 1,000-year flooding.
For a while after the flood, it seemed this community would never get back to what it was before. Before the water came creeping in the back doors of the honky-tonks, before the Cumberland River swallowed the Titans’ stadium and the Grand Ole Opry stage in one gulp, before flooding gutted thousands of homes and businesses, turned 54 counties into disaster areas, and robbed 24 of their lives.
But bit by bit, one family and business and landmark at a time, life after the flood is getting better.
“It hurt to lose everything,” said Kasondra Farmer, 28. “But stuff is just stuff. This has really taught me so much about the spirit of people, the spirit of this city.”
For all they lost, the Farmers held on to what mattered most, quite literally. When fast-rising floodwater trapped them in their Nashville home, Stephanie Farmer bundled her 67-year-old mother, tethered to an oxygen tank, and 4-year-old granddaughter into the attic crawl space. But Kasondra, who was crowned Miss Wheelchair Tennessee in 2008, couldn’t make it up the ladder.
So as cold, filthy water rose past the windows inside their house, Stephanie Farmer held onto her daughter with one hand and the attic ladder with the other, keeping both of them afloat until rescuers arrived in rowboats.
A year later, the family of four is renting a new home on top of a hill, far from the creek. A house that’s filled once again with furniture, and new memories of the friends and strangers who stepped up with donations of money and furniture and help when they needed it most. Local singers and songwriters hosted a benefit concert in their honor. On Monday, Kasondra starts a new job with the state.
“You have those days when I think about what I’ve lost,” Stephanie Farmer said. “But I didn’t lose (my family). That’s the most important thing to me.”
Disaster recovery is measured in years, not weeks and months. But hundreds of people are back in their homes in time for the anniversary.
The recovery begins
For many, the recovery began before the water receded.
First came the volunteers. Tens of thousands of them, patrolling flooded neighborhoods with trunkloads of bottled water, sandwiches and cleaning supplies. And they kept coming as the days stretched into months and victims needed someone to help rip out moldy drywall or haul in a donated sofa or mattress.
Hands On Nashville estimates that 25,870 volunteers donated more than 332,756 hours to flood relief in the past year. An additional 125,000 volunteered for flood-related projects organized by other agencies.
Then came the next wave: donations of money and goods and materials. Millions of dollars in federal aid. Volunteers arrived by the truckload. There were benefit concerts and grade school bake sales and text messages offering flood relief in $10 increments.
In Davidson County alone, more than 4,000 building permits have been issued to begin the renovation of the almost 11,000 properties damaged by the flood.
Some neighborhoods have recovered faster than others. The Opry House underwent a $20 million post-flood renovation that left it with a gleaming new backstage area that draws hundreds of tourists a week just for a behind-the-scenes look.
Some still suffer
Then you have neighborhoods such as the riverside subdivisions in Old Hickory, caught in a bend in the river that sent water rushing in from all sides.
The building permit stuck in the kitchen window of the Hicks family’s home in Old Hickory is a reminder that even after a year, life still isn’t back to normal. There’s no furniture in the dining room. The new kitchen cabinets are still missing a few doors.
But it’s a world away from the scene a year ago, when Nathaniel and Lynette Hicks escaped the house with their children, Allegra and Nigel, in a neighbor’s boat, navigating in the pitch dark using a small flashlight, trying to spot the tops of mailboxes through the syrup-dark floodwater.
“When the water went down, the real work began,” said Lynette Hicks, spreading dozens of photographs across the kitchen table, all shots of their home of 16 years before and after it was submerged in six feet of contaminated Cumberland backwash.
It was seven months before they could move back into the house. And getting them home that fast took the combined efforts of a small army of nonprofits and volunteers from across the country. When Garth Brooks staged a series of flood fundraiser concerts in December, some of the money from the River Fund found its way to the renovation of the Hicks home.
Contractor Ken Carter came to them, volunteering his services with the help of a Bellevue Presbyterian church. When Lynette asked him if he would mind laying the tile in the kitchen backsplash in a diamond pattern, instead of a square, he smiled and said, “If I would do it for Jesus, I will do it for you.”
Even in more affluent areas, post-flood recovery is a long and painful process.
“One of the biggest misconceptions out there is that there’s no need in Williamson County,” said Debby Rainey, who has spent the past year as an unpaid volunteer and case manager for the Williamson County Long-Term Recovery Committee.
“If you have a $600,000 house and no flood insurance, you’re going to be hurting.”
No one knows how many homes were actually affected by the flood. Even now, Rainey is getting calls from homeowners who have exhausted all their appeals with their insurance companies and banks and are turning to the community for help.
A long haul
Floods are a worst-case disaster scenario. They cause widespread, catastrophic destruction, often to properties that don’t have the proper insurance to offset the rebuilding cost. And recovery can take much longer than survivors ever expected.
“If a tornado comes through your town and blows everything apart, (once) it’s over, you can start rebuilding. Floods just tend to linger on and on,” said John Benson, public information officer for the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
The first year after the flood is a mad scramble of emergency triage and recovery. The second year, Benson said, is when things can get really hard on the survivors.
“The grim realization sets in that you have a long haul ahead,” he said.
Flood survivors try to look for the good. Again and again, they talk about the silver lining in those dark clouds that gathered over Nashville and dumped 14 inches of rain into the watershed.
More work ahead
The flood turned some neighborhoods into ghost towns, full of abandoned homes and bulldozed lots. But many more are coming back to life, often with the same neighbors.
More than 100 nonprofits are still laboring to help flood victims — in spite of the fact that some of those charities were flood victims themselves.
The Community Resource Center in Nashville flooded but kept distributing donations. Today, thanks to donations of money and labor, the center’s riverside warehouse is repaired and renovated and ready to start accepting new donations again, said Executive Director Catherine Mayhew.
“As much as it’s been hard, there’s been a silver lining,” she said.
The North Nashville Flood Relief Group has assisted more than 500 people, closed 93 cases and still has 114 cases to conquer. It has dispatched about 4,200 volunteers to aid residents and provided flood victims with food, clothing, cleaning supplies, basic housing needs and counseling.
“It is definitely going to take another year or year and a half for the total amount of cases to be closed,” said LaQuita Summey, executive director of the North Nashville Flood Relief Group. “In reality, we have hundreds of families that have used all their FEMA money and are still living with family and friends. The added stress takes a toll on people.”