natural disaster

It’s now Tuesday morning, May 4th, and the local news is announcing that while the Cumberland River in downtown Nashville has crested with the waters now receding, Ashland city and Clarksville are still at flood stage. Several city blocks in downtown Nashville are now without power as basement vaults are flooded. A caller on the morning news explains that their location, Pinnacle Hill in Kingston Springs, is a hilltop community that is still inaccessible, and that there are many families running out of food, with some in need of medical attention. There is water in the basement of the Opry House and the Country Music Hall Of Fame, both of which contain irreplaceable archives and memorabilia. Another news story shows a business owner standing in front of a sea of tractor-trailers trucks, his livelihood of 31 trucks and hundreds of trailers underwater and destroyed. Other video footage reveals roadways with damage that would otherwise be associated with an earthquake. The Opryland hotel, which accounts for 1/5 of the available hotel rooms in Nashville, announces it will be closed for months, inevitably leaving hundreds, if not thousands jobless. Hard-hit communities across the state share similar tragic tales ranging from loss of life to power outages, impassable roadways to pending water shortages, and homes and businesses either being damaged, destroyed, or completely washed away.

Amidst the disaster are a couple of rays of hope. The weather forecast predicts clear sunny days for the rest of the week, with only a slight chance of rain on Friday. Calls for volunteers are also being answered with thousands of people chipping in to help with the recovery process. A televised press conference in the middle of the day presents a steady stream of officials, each making announcements pertaining to specific areas of disaster relief. While the officials did provide much useful information, evidence of an overall lack of preparedness, organization, and communication is revealed, as the website they direct citizens to for disaster relief,, had not been updated since Sunday afternoon, and contained outdated information. One city official announced that floodwaters are unsafe and may contain raw sewerage, chemicals, and unknown dangerous objects, and to stay out of the water. A short while later another news story showed children playing in the water, and an adult attempting to water ski through floodwaters behind a pickup truck.

Upon calling a few friends that lived in neighboring communities, I learned the fate of a few other areas less covered by the news. One friend in Kingston Springs informed me that five or six houses had been completely washed away on his street. Another told his tale of driving home from a friend’s house with his three-year-old daughter on Saturday night, when a foot of water came rushing across the road and swept his vehicle to the side, stalling his vehicle. After 20 harrowing moments stuck in the rushing water, they were able to return to their friends house where they stayed until Tuesday, at which point they discovered a mile and a half hike was now required to get to their now in accessible home in White Bluff which sat intact right next to a neighbor’s house that was completely washed away.

A little later, a news story announced that the army corps of engineers was releasing water from the areas dams at strategic intervals. Throughout the day, I periodically switched from local news to national media stations such as CNN, MSNBC, Fox, and other national news programs, and was thoroughly disturbed to see the Tennessee flood getting little to no coverage. By mid afternoon, the CNN website used a small portion of this event as the lead story. Barely scratching the surface, the info put forth implied this storm mainly affected Nashville, when the reality is that it has impacted hundreds of thousands of people over thousands of square miles  With the loss of life is in the dozens, the economic and infrastructure damage , however, will likely be in the billions, as this storm system has produced catastrophic damage not only across much of Tennessee, but in the neighboring states of Mississippi, Arkansas, and Kentucky.

This monumental 500 to 1000 year event, came with little warning. Unlike Hurricane Katrina, which first made its introduction days in advance by way of big scary radar images on radar, this storm looked like a typical round of heavy rain and severe weather. No one could have known the system was going to stall right over Tennessee. Nevertheless, it did, dumping between 12 and 20 inches of rain, 28% of our annual rainfall, in less than 48 hours. And while it doesn’t have the dramatic buildup, high death toll, and scenes of looting, this event is potentially as ever far-reaching in terms of human suffering due to a natural disaster. While the local news of middle Tennessee has provided much coverage so far, most of this coverage has been for Davidson County, with minimal attention to the rest of Tennessee. The national news media has completely missed this epic disaster, with a few slight exceptions. While the oil slick off the gulf of Mexico, and the New York City car bomber, are certainly important stories, they are not the only stories. In the age of 24 hour news media coverage, there is no excuse for this kind of ineptitude and shortsightedness. Where are all the journalists hiding, for they have missed the quiet Katrina.

It’s now early Monday morning, day three of this epic event, and I awoke to a dark house, as we were still without power. Living in this world of constant connectivity and electric powered amenities allows for a lifestyle that we take for granted, even breeding complacency and cockiness in our falsely perceived roles as masters of the universe. As of this moment, the word vulnerable and insignificant doesn’t even begin to describe the feeling of being trapped in your own neighborhood with all access roads cut off, no electricity, no Internet, and information coming only by radio, and others caught in the same predicament.

Starved for information, and needing some supplies we decided to reinvestigate the condition of the roads. After a quick visit to the main entrance revealed the main road was still under water, we slowly and carefully proceeded north on the only other main access road, 249, to Ashland City. It was a warm day, and the sun was now shining, giving the illusion for a brief moment that nothing was wrong outside of our development. This all changed when we saw some damage in the form of fallen trees, and scattered debris in the mud of some low-lying areas.

This particular road is not unlike many in middle Tennessee; rolling hills covered with thick forests, fields and pastures speckled with a few random cows and horses, sparsely scattered houses, and a few small family farms here and there. After about 10 minutes of driving on this road, we came to an area that was void of housing for a few miles, and an eerie feeling set upon us as a large desolate lake appeared to our right, butting right up to the road. Our concern quickly escalated when it became obvious that this lake was brand-new, and probably a field a couple of days ago, as we could see the roof of a submerged tractor-trailer truck cab near the distant shore. No sooner had we spotted the sunken truck, when the now horrifying view through the windshield was that of this new lake completely surrounding the road, with the pavement disappearing about 100 feet in front of us. The straight flat highway of asphalt ahead looked like an ominous runway off the edge of the earth. With water on both sides of the road up to the painted white lines, I carefully executed a three-point turn on this death road to hell, and drove back to our home.

I went over and spoke to one of my neighbors about the road conditions we had just experienced, and he informed me there was one access road open. The road had some problems and required some detailed directions as there were many turns, but it was passable, so we decided to make a second attempt. Along the way we saw a large section of a hill that abutted 249 had ripped away, so we pulled over to make sure the road was safe. The stunning view over the guardrail was that of a hill that looked like it had a large bite taken out of it, with uprooted trees and brush strewn about like matchsticks more than 100 feet below. We carefully retreated to our car and cautiously proceeded past this weakened part of the road on the opposite side.

After a long drive through the winding maze of obscure back roads, we safely emerged near the Wal-Mart on Charlotte Pike. Our newly revised mission was to fill up our car with gas, purchase some ice, dry foods, and water, and find an Internet café. A phone call from our neighbor notified us that the electricity was finally back on, so we skipped the Internet café and returned home. It was now Monday early afternoon, and we were finally getting our first viewings of the totality of the destruction this historic flood was unleashing throughout the state on local news television.

Some of the first images we saw reminded me of aerial pictures of damage caused by Hurricane Katrina; subdivisions containing hundreds of homes submerged under water almost to the rooftops, submerged vehicles stranded on roadways, mounds of debris, and cars stacked in piles like toys. We remained glued to the television throughout the day as new information and stories were developing exponentially. At some point in the afternoon, it was announced that the Opryland hotel was under 10 feet of water, and that 1500 guests had to be rescued. The entire area around the Opryland hotel including the Opry House, the Opry Mills Mall, and a parking lot in which our cars had been parked just 36 hours before were under 5 to 10 feet of water. Parts of downtown were being evacuated as water was now up to second avenue near Riverfront Park. Suburbs like Antioch, Bellevue, Old Hickory, and many others had homes, schools, and businesses underwater, bridges and parts of roads washed away, and people being rescued from their homes and businesses by boats.

The flood was impacting areas far beyond the city limits, as the Cumberland River was well beyond flood stage in Clarksville. One newscaster made the frightening announcement that problems in a water treatment plant might cause for raw sewerage to be dumped into the Cumberland River there. Power outages were widespread, Interstates were experiencing closures due to flooding, and President Obama began the process of declaring disaster areas in over 50 counties spanning almost half the state.

Signs of being ill-prepared for a natural disaster of this magnitude started to become visible as video showed children and adults playing in floodwaters despite the occasional newscaster warning that the waters can contain sewerage, chemicals, and dangerous objects. Some of the flooding downtown was being caused by one businesses ill advised attempt to pump water from its basement, and barely mentioned were city officials requests for citizens to conserve water despite water treatment and purification facilities being down. Early predictions stated that the Cumberland river wood crest by 3 PM at 51.5 feet (flood stage is at 40), but these predictions kept getting pushed back into the evening hours. The local news stations, which had done a fair job of covering the event up to this point, became an embarrassing disappointment, when the 10 PM broadcasts  showed rebroadcasts of events from earlier in the day, delivering no new news as to whether or not the waters were still rising or receding.

Physically and mentally drained, we decided to retire for the evening. Feeling relatively safe from the floodwaters on our hilltop haven, I can still barely comprehend all that’s happened over the past three days, and I still have feelings of anxiety and confusion. This disaster is far from over, and I’m sure that the tale of the great Tennessee flood of 2010 is just beginning.

In light of the recent flood disaster that has decimated middle Tennessee, I feel compelled to put my music industry blogging on hold temporarily as I feel this developing story is much more pertinent. As some of you may have read in my last two blogs, my family and I have lived through this catastrophe, and while we are okay, our state of Tennessee is being widely impacted with the complete repercussions of this event far from over. In the coming weeks I will continue to write about any Rhett Akins shows as they happen, as well as anything else interesting that happens within my musical endeavors, but at least for the immediate future, I plan to keep most of my writing geared towards this unfolding disaster.

It was just after noon on Sunday, May 1st, and the electricity was still down when we turned on our battery-powered weather radio. Now day two of the heaviest rainstorm we had ever seen, me, my wife Kelly, and our son Josh sat around the living room amidst an ambience of perpetual twilight, and listened to the computer-generated voice of Noah Weather Radio deliver a frightening and unsettling story. Round two of this marathon downpour had began in the early morning hours and was now causing many rivers across the state to reach flood stage. We were rendered speechless as this digital weatherman went down the list of where the different rivers in the different counties were about to, or already cresting, with the Harpeth River, about a half mile from our house in Pegram, Tennessee, among them. The list of road closures was also statewide, and hearing all of this news while sitting without electricity and in near darkness, seemed ever more ominous, as the voice telling the story was not unlike that of the Terminator, and void of all emotion.

I made a call on my cell phone to the power company, at which point I learned that the outage was widespread, but not much more. Unknowing of the duration of this storm event or the power outage, it was now time to take stock in our situation. We grabbed everything out of the refrigerator that could make for some cold meals; sandwich stuff, bread, cheeses, peanut butter, juice, and beer, and put it in a cooler with the remaining ice from our freezer. A house-wide search was conducted for all available flashlights, batteries, candles, matches, and board games. Confident that we were now set for a few days , I decided to walk next door and talk to my neighbor to see what he knew about the situation. He told me that the road at the bottom of our development hill is underwater, and that several houses in that area had been flooded. My mind struggled to comprehend his words, which seemed to just hang in the humid spring air, and this prompted further investigation as I just couldn’t visualize, and didn’t want to believe what I just heard.

Our house sits in the middle of a development near the top of a big hill, at least a hundred or so feet above the road below, and just a stone’s throw from the Harpeth River, one of several major rivers that snake through the valleys of middle Tennessee. As we neared the main entrance, the scene that came into focus was beyond words. Still raining heavily, we viewed the entrance to our development, and saw the top couple inches of a stop sign poking up out of the brown water from about 40 feet away, which was the closest we could get to the main street, now a lake spanning more than 100 feet across. To the left of the entrance, stood two beautiful two-story homes, now submerged in water that almost reached the second floor. To the right of the entrance, “Lake Harpeth” stretched as far as the eye could see, with several homes formally abutting the road now inaccessible and cut off, achieving an unwanted beach front status.

After a few minutes of taking in the eerie site, this natural disaster that was now a half mile from our home, we retreated to our safe haven on top of the hill. A few hours later the rain finally stopped, and we took a drive to check out one of the two other access roads. We didn’t get too far before we spotted another city truck blocking the road, and the impact of this flood was becoming more clear with each passing minute. From this new vantage point, we could see our community bank completely submerged, water 6 feet high, and above the windows. A brief chat with a city worker informed us that the garage next door was underwater, and that some people had to be rescued from the gas station by boat a little earlier in the day. We also learned that the power substation was underwater, and would require the floodwaters to recede before it could be assessed. After a few minutes of taking some pictures and video, we solemnly returned to our home.

We sat around the living room listening to the radio for news, as the darkness of night grew near. As we had no way to charge our cell phones, we stayed off them, reserving their power for as long as possible. We ate a little food, drank a few beers, and played a game of Scrabble to pass the time, but the mood was still a bit less than cheerful. In a typical power outage, one experiences minor inconveniences; a lack of the basic amenities normally taken for granted. But when the power goes out and you are stranded by way of a natural disaster, the feeling is much more of panic. Information becomes a commodity, as you struggle to gain perspective on your life situation. In an event of this proportion, without electricity, we lose almost all connection with the outside world, and are deemed naked and vulnerable, prisoners within our own homes. I hope the water recedes soon, and the power comes back on so we can reconnect with the outside world. Meanwhile, safe from the waters below, but cut off from what lies beyond, we wait, marooned on Pegram Island.

Saturday morning began for me at 5:30 AM, when I was suddenly awoken by the sound of a loud crack of thunder. By the time I dragged myself out of bed a short while later, a heavy downpour was underway, and our fair state of Tennessee was beginning to receive a walloping storm. On any other day this would have been less significant for me, but on this first day of May, 2010, Rhett Akins and band were leaving for an outdoor show in Alabama, and it was my job as tour manager to see it through.

All morning long, in between preparing for the trip, my wife Kelly and I kept checking the weather, and grew more concerned with every passing minute as the forecast was not good. During the 40 minute drive to the bus, which was exceptionally precarious due to the now torrential rain, I received a call from Rhett, who informed me he would be leaving late and driving himself to the show. We arrived at the bus, loaded up, and began the 130 mile drive to our destination, the small town of Hartselle, Alabama, just a little ways over the Tennessee/Alabama border.

The rain was relentless for the first half of the drive, and just when it seemed like our show was doomed, it gradually began to subside as we neared the Alabama border. I now received my second phone call from Rhett, and our newly found optimism was again put on hold when he told me that he just saw a car completely submerged underwater on the northbound side of Interstate 65. We all began to worry about our fearless leader (as well as our own fate) as we watched the news now showing video footage of the devastation this storm had just wreaked upon Arkansas, in the form of tornadoes, and Memphis, by way of flooding.

We safely arrived to our destination, a large open field in the middle of nowhere upon which a local business, Frederick Tractor Supply, was throwing a groundbreaking ceremony. As we pulled down the long gravel driveway, I first spotted the stage; two flatbed trailers complete with a green tarp “awning”, supported by two by fours. I now received my third call from Rhett who informed me that the radio stations were no longer playing music, but delivering storm news, and that I65, I24, and I40 around Nashville were now closed due to flooding. A short while later I was greeted by the owner who told me “I think we may have dodged a bullet on this one.” as I felt a few light rain drops on my face.

The light sprinkle was short-lived, and we hesitantly began our load in and soundcheck. Halfway through soundcheck the sprinkle returned and intensified, so we covered our gear and returned to the bus. Around 5:30 it subsided, and we finished soundcheck and waited for dinner, some home-cooked barbecue that was allegedly “the best in the county”. As we sat on the bus, the latest news reports were now showing a broader picture of the pending apocalypse that loomed just outside our door step. Flipping between the Weather Channel and CNN, we were horrified to see images of Nashville interstates that looked more like lakes filled with half submerged cars and tractor-trailers, viewed through a gloomy mist of grey.

It seemed surreal that we were getting ready to play a concert, while just 100 miles to our north there were more than 70 cars underwater on the roadways we had just traveled upon. Strangely enough, it never did rain again on our quaint little country setting, and we played a 90 minute show to an approving audience of 500 or so tractors and concertgoers.

After the show was over, our bus driver Steve informed us that I65 was now passable, but that another round of storms was on its way, so we made a hasty departure to try to beat the next storm. Fortunately, the ride home was uneventful, and we arrived safely back to our cars in a parking lot near the Opryland Hotel. A short while later, as Kelly and I neared our home just West of Nashville, we came upon a city truck blocking the road in front of some standing water, and had to take a detour to a secondary entrance to our development. As we pulled into the driveway of our home, we were greeted by a cold dark house as the storm had knocked out the power in our area.

It’s now noon the next day, again raining heavily, and I’m writing this by hand as we’re still without power. We learned the day before that a flood watch will be in effect for middle Tennessee until Thursday, as this storm was not yet finished. Yesterday it rained 11 inches and less than 10 hours, and before the storm is done, we could receive up to 4 to 8 inches more. So far at least eight people have died from drowning in what is being deemed the worst flooding the state has seen in over 30 years.

It’s not over yet, and I wonder what we’ll learn when the power comes back on. As I sit with a pen and paper, looking through a window at a rain soaked canopy of green and grey, I’m still amazed at how a mere 14 hour bus gig, the shortest in recent years, was one of the most stressful and terrifying we had ever experienced. While some weren’t so lucky, at least for our group, it looks like we might have dodged a bullet on this one.

The Saturday morning of April 17 started out like so many other one-off’s for all of us on the Rhett Akins tour, and on this day, it was the Kappa Alpha fraternity house at Georgia Tech in Atlanta that would be our destination. This particular day began in a slightly more than typical fashion with Rhett’s son, Thomas Rhett, and three of his best friends tagging along for this southern spring adventure.

We arrived at the frat house late afternoon to be greeted by our contacts who were fairly organized, and they did a good job helping us get situated (if you’ve ever played a fraternity, then you know this is somewhat uncommon). We loaded our gear onto a plywood stage which was set up in the middle of a courtyard in the back of the frat house, and proceeded to set up and sound check amidst the backdrop of the downtown skyscrapers of this enormous city. This particular concert had an 11:30 PM start time, typical for a frat party, so we had a good amount of downtime between sound check and the show. A few hours later, after some dinner and a little chillin’ in the front lounge, I went out to the stage to get some things set for the show. Upon returning to the bus, I felt a little bit of that pre-show lag common with such late starts, and we all started talking about how we felt like we were ready for bed. Sorry everybody, show time is in five minutes!

The show began and a wave of energy quickly spread from the stage, through the crowd, and back to the stage in that kind of perpetual circular motion that only happens at a live concert. It’s amazing how quickly adrenaline will turn exhaustion into an abundance of energy, and now the night was really starting to evolve as we stomped through our repertoire. The packed courtyard was standing room only, and the receptive kids were singing along with Rhett’s earlier hits as well as much of his unreleased later material. Still going strong an hour and a half after we began, Rhett decided to pull out some old-school tunes, and the crowd of energetic youngsters, many of whom were still in their late teens, seemed to know every word of Allman Brothers classics like Statesboro Blues and Melissa, songs that were released years before these kids were even born. After I sang Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower to give Rhett a quick break, he launched into some more fun party tunes that kept everybody singing and grooving along, ending the electric part of this show with Hey Ho Let’s Go, by The Ramones, a song we had never played before that seemed to only further ignite the excitement of the crowd. Although we walked off the stage feeling exhausted, it was a good feeling exhausted.

It was now 2:00 AM and we had played nonstop for 2 1/2 hours, substantially longer than our typical concert, but not unheard of for us. Upon the relentless chanting for more, Rhett decided to send up his son, Thomas Rhett, to stand in for an acoustic encore. Thomas Rhett, apparently inheriting his dad’s uncanny ability to instantly win over a crowd, kept the party going strong for another 45 minutes, singing some of his favorite tunes. When Thomas left the stage, the kids, still wanting more, were then treated to a second acoustic encore by Rhett himself, who was apparently inspired by his son’s performance. Rhett announced “If it’s all right with y’all, I’m gonna keep singing until our bus driver gets here.” Of course, he thought our driver would be there shortly, which he would’ve, but because of a communication error, it would be another hour before he would arrive. By the time I finally went out to tell our fearless leader that we could now leave, it was 3:55 AM, bringing the total length of this concert to four hours and 25 minutes, what is certainly the longest Rhett Akins concert I’ve ever been a part of. Although the party had dwindled to a smaller size than its peak a couple of hours earlier, those who were left were still chanting for more as Rhett walked away.

As we drove off into the night, with a Waffle House as our next destination, we all sat around the front lounge of the bus, basking in the wonderment of the night. Even the fraternity’s security personell said we rocked. As far as Rhett Akins concerts go, it may have been the longest mile we’ve walked yet, and thanks to everybody that was there, it was another great Saturday night in Dixie!