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Op-Ed- Congressional Hearings Seek Facts from Corps


Location: Unknown

Today, the Army Corps of Engi­neers will tes­tify before Con­gress on its per­for­mance dur­ing the his­toric flood. As I pointed out in this series, the Corps did not apply the lessons learned from the 1975 flood, and its struc­tural prob­lems lim­ited their response. The hear­ing should help start cor­rect­ing these problems.

On its web­site, the Corps says that one of its top mis­sions is "to reduce risks from dis­as­ters." There are two ways to do that: by prepar­ing us before a record rain­fall and by warn­ing us before the river rises to dan­ger­ous lev­els. Did the Corps pre­pare us or warn us?

Here's what hap­pened before the flood:

The Corps uses mis­lead­ing words like 100-year, or 500-year, to describe rare events, often caus­ing peo­ple to under­es­ti­mate risk. Those adjec­tives do not mean you are safe for 100 years, or that you only face a 1 per­cent risk of flooding.

Almost no one in low-lying areas of Nashville knew there was a 26 per­cent chance of seri­ous, 100-year flood­ing dur­ing their
30-year mort­gage. Dig deep into the Corps web­site and you'll find it: Roughly 1 per­cent risk every year in a 100-year flood plain, and the risk adds up. Too few Nashvil­lians knew that they needed flood insur­ance to cope with a 26 per­cent risk.

There are 11,496 at-risk res­i­den­tial and busi­ness prop­er­ties in David­son County inside the flood­way and 100-year flood plain, but only about 3,895 had flood insur­ance. In other words, only about one-third of those who needed insur­ance cov­er­age had it.

The Corps also does a poor job of teach­ing us that liv­ing near a river gets riskier every year in fast-growing regions. Every new park­ing lot and build­ing changes the way that rain­fall reaches rivers. Homes and busi­nesses that are safe now may not be in the next decade, so every­one needs a mar­gin of safety.

Here's what hap­pened dur­ing the flood:

Accord­ing to the press con­fer­ence that the Corps and the National Weather Ser­vice held in Nashville after the flood, "The Corps is not a 24/7 water man­age­ment oper­a­tion."
The weather ser­vice was, dur­ing the flood, "basi­cally, if you want to call it, run­ning blind."

The Corps increased the flow from Old Hick­ory Dam 22 times on the cru­cial day, Sun­day, May 2, but only updated the National Weather Ser­vice four times, prob­a­bly pre­vent­ing the weather ser­vice from mak­ing accu­rate forecasts.

The Cum­ber­land River rose 19 feet in 16 hours that Sun­day, exclu­sively because of releases from Old Hick­ory Dam, which tripled that day to reach an all-time record.
Hardly any­one down­stream knew that Old Hick­ory Dam was releas­ing more water than it ever had before.

In a sense, it no longer was act­ing as a dam, because it was releas­ing every­thing it could.

Lives were lost and hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars of dam­age were done to vehi­cles, inven­tory and mov­able equip­ment sim­ply because we lacked even a few hours warn­ing of these mas­sive Cum­ber­land River flows.

The Corps has never pub­licly vol­un­teered that it has a "what if" com­puter pro­gram that judges whether it could have run our dams better.

It's like play­ing chess against a computer.

Will the Corps dis­close at today's hear­ing how its per­for­mance scored? Nashville deserves to know if our dams could have been man­aged better.

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