Northeast Wisconsin regional Red Cross worker headed into heart of Tennessee flood zone
At 6:30 a.m. Barbara Behling hit send on her BlackBerry. The tweet flew into cyberspace: “With a roundtrip ticket to Nashville. Most are trying to get out while more Red Cross help is coming in.
Behling, community development officer for the northeast Wisconsin regional Red Cross, is on her way to help with relief efforts in the nation’s country music capital where rescuers fear finding more dead bodies as muddy flood waters ebb from torrential weekend rains that swamped much of Tennessee and two neighboring states, leaving at least 29 dead.
“If you would have asked me about it at 10 o’clock last night, I would have been frantic,” Behling said from her phone while waiting in Minneapolis for her connecting flight to Nashville. “You’re packing a suitcase going into the unknown.”
She received the call at noon Monday that the Red Cross was deploying her in the disaster area as part of a three person public affairs team working with local and national media outlets to educate the public on where to find food, shelter and other resources.
So she found her spare cell phone battery, packed her vitamins, an extra pair of socks and called her mom to say she wouldn’t be home for Mother’s Day. In the dark after midnight, she to sleep at knowing she did everything she could for her family.
“When I drove to the airport at 5 a.m. this morning, I had a sense of safety and security that I’ll be able to help the people of greater Tennessee,” she said.
Already, 170 Red Cross volunteers are on the grounds of the disaster. Behling’s flight is scheduled to arrive at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Dramatic rescues continued throughout Monday as water crept into areas that had remained safe during weekend downpours. The Cumberland River that has submerged parts of Nashville’s historic downtown was expected to start receding Tuesday after being swollen by flash floods in creeks that feed into it.
The severity of the storms caught everyone off guard. More than 13.5 inches of rainfall were recorded Saturday and Sunday, according to the National Weather Service, making for a new two-day record that doubled the previous mark.
The water swelled most of the area’s lakes, minor rivers, creeks, streams and drainage systems far beyond capacity. It flowed with such force that bridges were washed out and thousands of homes were damaged. Much of that water then drained into the Cumberland, which snakes through Nashville.
The Cumberland topped out around 6 p.m. Monday at 51.9 feet, about 12 feet above flood stage and the highest it’s reached since 1937. It began to recede just in time to spare the city’s only remaining water treatment plant.
Damage estimates range into the tens of millions of dollars. Gov. Phil Bredesen declared 52 of Tennessee’s 95 counties disaster areas after finishing an aerial tour from Nashville to western Tennessee during which he saw flooding so extensive that treetops looked like islands.
Thousands of people fled rising water and hundreds were rescued, but bodies were recovered Monday from homes, a yard, even a wooded area outside a Nashville supermarket. By Monday night, the rapidly rising waters were blamed in the deaths of 18 people in Tennessee alone, including 10 in Nashville.
The weekend storms also killed six people in Mississippi and four in Kentucky, including one man whose truck ran off the road and into a flooded creek. One person was killed by a tornado in western Tennessee.
In Nashville, the Cumberland also deluged some of the city’s most important revenue sources: the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center, whose 1,500 guests were whisked to a shelter; the adjacent Opry Mills Mall; even the Grand Ole Opry House, considered by many to be the heart of country music.
Floodwaters also edged into areas of downtown, damaging the Country Music Hall of Fame, LP Field where the Tennessee Titans play and the Bridgestone Arena, home to the NHL’s Nashville Predators and one of the city’s main concert venues.