Tennessee Flood Disaster Largely Ignored By National Media
May 8, 2010

Nashville TN May 3, 2010

Tennessee Precipitation May 1 and May 2 2010

So, What About Tennessee?  Last weekend, the media was focused on a failed attempt of a terrorist to blow up a bomb in Times Square.  The media was focused on the Gulf Oil Spill that threatened the spoil the ecosystem of the Louisiana Coast.  Nearly a week later, the oil had yet to reach the US mainland but had spoiled some uninhabited islands off the coast. 

May 2010 is already the wettest May ever for parts of Tennessee

Certainly,  the oil has caused great harm to marine life and the ecosystems of those islands.  It seems inevitable that the oil will eventually find its way to the US mainland.  Nevertheless, it seems counter-intuitive but it’s not completely out of the question that ocean currents keep the oil offshore.  Probable? No.  Possible? Yes.  The point is that we can thank the ineptitude of the bomber  that the Times Square Bomb did not go off and no one was hurt. We can thank the NTSB and NYPD that the guy was caught.   Thank goodness that so far the oil has not had the feared effect and, if luck holds out,  we will dodge a bullet.  So,  those two events were big news that held great potential for harm but had done no huge harm.  Yet,  on May 1 and May 2, 30 Americans were losing their lives in parts of the South and parts of Tennessee were feeling great harm from flooding that has not been seen in the region for at least a generation.  That news received relatively little attention.  People were dying. Property was in fact being destroyed.  No if; No maybe; No could or might.  It was happening.  Yet the media dismissed it.

Cumberland River at Nashville Record Crests

The Cumberland River at Nashville crested on May 3 at 51.86 feet, which is not an all-time record.    The all-time record on New Years Day 1927 was over 56 feet.  The next six highest crests were in the late 19th Century.  The eighth all-time high point was last weekend’s event but it was the highest by far since the Cumberland River was controlled by a dam system in the 1960’s.  The previous high since the control system was put in place was was 47.6 feet on March 15, 1975.  The Cumberland River at Clarksville set an all-time record river level of over 62.5 feet.  That surpassed the previous March 14, 1975 record by nearly 5.5 feet and was 16.5 feet above flood stage.  Record river levels were also found in various locations on the Duck River and Harpeth River as well as on the Red River and Buffalo River. 

Nashville Area Rain May 1 and May 2 2010

Nashville also had some other records broken:  Calendar day rain total of 7.25″ breaking old record of 6.60″ on Sept. 13, 1979; 12 hour rain total of 7.20″-old record 6.37″ Sept. 13, 1979; 6 hour rain total of 5.57″-old record 5.17″ Sept. 13, 1979; 24 hour rain total of 9.09″ spanning parts of May 1 and May 2-old record 6.60″ Sept. 13-14 1979; greatest 2-day calendar day total of 13.57″ shattering the old record on Sept 13-14 1979 of just 6.68″.  It should be obvious the previous big rain days was September 13 and September 14 in 1979.  That was the result of the remanant of Hurricane Frederick that had come on shore at Mobile Bay the night before.   Oh, by the way, there were also 3 tornadoes confirmed in the Nashville region.  The clean up will take months. (slide show)

Some Areas around Memphis Received 20 inches of Rain

It wasn’t just Nashville and the surrounding area.  It was almost all of Western Tennessee.  The Memphis region confirmed 13 tornadoes, one of which killed three people.  Many parts of Western Tennessee received 10-15 inches of rain with doppler radar estimates as high as 20 inches in some areas.  The main rail line of the CSX railroad connecting Nashville and Memphis is closed.  Why you ask?  Two bridges were washed away.  The railroad will try to work quickly but the line will be closed for 4-6 weeks.  Memphis and Shelby County health experts are concerned about disease resulting from prime mosquito breeding conditions following the flood.  Of particular concern is the West Nile Virus and St. Louis Encephalitis.     On Thursday a flood victim was discovered in Memphis.  He has a name.  It’s 32-year-old Terrance Williams who went missing 5 days before early Saturday morning.  Williams death brings the storm death total to 30 with 19 killed in Tennessee from flooding, one from a tornado and 10 others in Mississippi and Kentucky.  CNN says its 31.

Downtown Nashville has been shut down with many iconic destination locations like the Grand Old Opry suffering damage that may take weeks to repair.  But, more importantly, one of Nashville’s two water treatment plants is out of commission.  Much like the well publicized flooding in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, the flood waters are contaminated with a number of toxic elements including raw sewage.   The AP reports that in the Cottonwood subdivision in Nashville, residents were trying to withstand the malodorous smell and one resident reported lots of white things in the water.   Those white items were pieces of toilet paper.   We saw all sorts of stories like that with Katrina;  Very few for Western TennesseeIn a story in which he questions why the media has largely ignored the flooding, Newsweek reporter Andrew Romano says that Google had 8390 hits for “Times Square bomb” and 13, 800 for “BP Oil spill.”  “Nashville Flood” had 2430 hits with many of those being local. 

Media Often Determines News Value By Whatever Everyone Else is Covering

Romano points to several reasons for the dearth of reporting.  Initially,  he says  that the national media tends to determine what is news by what others are covering.  I’ve seen that before and some refer to it as a “pack mentality.”  I’ve been in many a TV newsroom that determines what to cover that day based on what is in the morning paper.  I”ve done an informal study and looked at the pie charts in USA Today and found that, more often than not, it seems like at least one of those pie charts finds its way as a story on a national  evening news cast. Romano describes it as such:   “Everyone is talking about BP and Faisal Shahzad 24/7, the “thinking” goes. So there must not be anything else that’s as important to talk about.” 

Satellite View of Rain Swollen Cumberland River

He then adds that the Nashville story didn’t have enough sizzle.  It lacked a political hook and there were no plots of intrigue like the BP oil spill and the Times Square story.  But, in my mind, those stories lacked a basic underlying theme: human misery.  And this was not human misery on the other side of the world.  This was misery for  Americans dying and suffering.  Damage estimates are climbing to the $1 billion level  and the governor thinks it will go higher.  The flooding in Western Tennessee could end up being one of the costliest natural disasters in US history.  Yet, by Friday, national news headlines were about the stock market and more on the BP oil spill.  The stock market is bouncing around.  The oil is still there “threatening” the mainland and BP is still trying to figure out how to stop the oil.  30 people are dead in Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky and the misery continues.   Romano says that the media suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder and that no story lasts forever.  For many news outlets, the Tennessee flooding story never existed in the first place. 

Find the Banks of the Cumberland River

The BP oil spill story is huge. It could be a great calamity and in some regards already is a huge disaster.  The Times Square bomber story is a tremendous issue relating to the security of the nation.  But, the Tennessee flooding story is historic in many regards, especially for those families who have relatives whose history has ended.  Country music stars Faith Hill and Tim McGraw say they are in shock over what they’ve seen in Nashville.  Perhaps it is the fact that Nashville is the home of many of country music’s biggest stars that attention will be brought to the plight of the people through celebrity effort.  CNN’s Anderson Cooper has been on the seen but one cannot say that the national media has really focused on the needs of Tennessee.   In other natural disasters in the United States or around the world, telethons are held for the victims.  I haven’t seen any for this disaster yet, but one is in the works by a country music cable channel.  There is an immediate need for donations cleaning supplies, face masks and work gloves.   Relief supplies are coming in from fellow Tennesseans. A TV station in Nashville had a local telethon that raised over $1.7 million.   A radio station in Knoxville teamed with the Salvation Army to send much needed items, like clean water.

No Wake Speed on Nashville Streets

When Louisville was devastated by a tornado in 1890, the residents received no help from the Federal government but instead rebuilt the city in a year on their own.  Tennessee is known as the “Volunteer State” and no doubt, Tennesseans are and will continue to lend a hand to their neighbors. Much as Louisvillians didn’t run to someone else for help in the late 19th century,  it is evident that Tennesseans aren’t waiting around for someone else to help.   HCA in Nashville has donated a half million dollars and is giving its employees leave to help with local relief efforts. Country music star Taylor Swift donated $500K of her own.    But, this is not a country music disaster.   These are our countrymen; fellow Americans.  The governor has asked and received a Federal disaster declaration but by and large, Tennesseans aren’t looking for handouts.  But, Americans should and will lend a hand if the media would tell them how bad it is in the Volunteer State.    From wherever you are, you can find out how to help by clicking here to VolunteerTennessee.net.  Country music cable network  Great American Country Television will be airing a National Telethon on May 16, but I doubt if the major networks will plan any such thing.  They just don’t have the time.

Weather Bottom Line:  Weekend weather will be spectacular if not coolish.  After topping out at 88 on Friday,  the front was windy with a t’storm or two but that’s about it.  Pretty much what I anticipated.  Look for highs in the low to mid 60’s on Saturday and for Mother’s Day.  We could see some action around here about midweek next week.