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Cooper Testifies at Corps Hearing

Location: Washington, DC

Congressman Jim Cooper (TN-05) testified today at a Senate hearing regarding the Army Corps of Engineers performance during the flood. Cooper continued to be critical of the Corps' actions and expressed his concerns in today's testimony.

"The Corps also admits, they were so unprepared that they did not even have a Standard Operating Procedure for 24/7 staffing, although TVA does it routinely. The Corps had not read its Weather Service emails, determined who were essential personnel, or even established a telephone tree. I know Boy Scout troops that are better prepared than this."

Thank you Senators Dorgan and Bennett, and to Senator Alexander for calling this hearing. I appreciate the opportunity to work with you on a bipartisan basis to make sure the public gets the facts about what happened in Tennessee during the great flood of 2010.

The national news media may have downplayed the 2010 flood, but the world watched in admiration as Tennesseans immediately got to work repairing the water damage and rebuilding their lives, homes, and businesses. Neighbors helped neighbors, churches helped everyone, and no one waited for government assistance, although FEMA, SBA, and other agencies are thankfully doing their part. In my district, people are still volunteering, and donating, and wearing proudly the WE ARE NASHVILLE t-shirts in order to help everyone bounce back from the flood.

The sad truth, however, is that thousands of Tennesseans are still hurting. They can never be made whole from what happened. The record rains could not be stopped, but people are demanding to know if the Army Corps of Engineers or the National Weather Service could have at least warned us of the imminent disaster, and done more to reduce it.

The spookiest thing about the flood was the fact that so many cars were left in driveways, so many trucks in their terminals. So many families went to bed thinking they were safe. Lives could have been saved and hundreds of millions of dollars of damage averted with just a little warning. Who knew, for example, that even parts of our interstate highways were about to be under water? I just learned yesterday that one of Middle Tennessee's largest employers, A.O. Smith in Ashland City, a company that knows how to deal with the Cumberland River, lost 60,000 water heaters that were packed and ready for shipment.

I welcome the Corps "After Action Report" that was released yesterday. The Corps worked hard on the document, and it is a good beginning to understanding what happened. The Corps itself still has a lot to learn, however, as it demonstrates on page 29, when it states incorrectly that "Metro Center… flooded," which is completely untrue. How the Corps could still not know the fate of this billion-dollar office park and commercial center months after the flood is hard to comprehend. Metro Center never flooded, thank goodness. In order to get the facts right, we still need to hear from witnesses that were present in Nashville during the flood, and to see their emails, texts, and records. There's no substitute for local, first-hand knowledge. We also need to see how the Corps performed according to their own computer modeling, a "what if" program that they have never volunteered.

The best way to summarize the Report is to say it puts a cheerful face on some pretty ugly facts. The Corps admits to no less than 27 categories of problems with their performance during the 2010 Flood, so it's hard to see how the Corps could give itself a passing grade.

Probably the ugliest findings are on page 62, when the Corps admits that, on the crucial day, the morning of Sunday, May 2nd, when an elderly couple in Nashville had already drowned getting to church, only then did Nashville Corps take the flood seriously enough to establish emergency operations. As the Corps admits, this key decision happened at least a day, and several lives, late. By then the Cumberland River had already risen 15.5 feet. As the Corps also admits, they were so unprepared that they did not even have a Standard Operating Procedure for 24/7 staffing, although TVA does it routinely (p. 266). The Corps had not read its Weather Service emails, determined who were essential personnel, or even established a telephone tree. I know Boy Scout troops that are better prepared than this.

A second ugly finding is this: After the Corps finally declared the emergency on the morning of Sunday, May 2nd, the Corps did not fully inform the Weather Service -- and therefore the public -- about major water releases from Old Hickory Dam until 11 o'clock that night. This inexplicable, inexcusable, 16-hour delay kept the public from knowing that the Cumberland River was rising an additional 19 feet, just due to Old Hickory Dam alone. Nineteen feet is the greater part of the devastating 32-foot rise of the Cumberland River, and hardly anyone knew it was coming. The release of such a flood of water from Old Hickory was almost as if a water bomb were dropped on Nashville.

The Corps now admits in its Report that it should have made clear to the Weather Service -- and therefore to the public -- by, at the latest, 1:30 Sunday afternoon -- or almost ten hours earlier -- that the Cumberland River was rising as if Old Hickory Dam had literally disappeared. People downstream had a right to know this vital information. Of course, the Corps uses drier, bureaucratic language, but it states (p.62) that it "assumed that… the [Weather Service] would run its [river forecasting] models as if the project were no longer present." These are sometimes called "free flow" or "run of river" conditions, similar to what would happen on a Cumberland River without any dams at all. The Corps still insists on calling this "technical information" but it can mean life or death for people downstream.

The Corps blames the Weather Service for not understanding hydraulics, but why on earth couldn't the Corps warn them and us, in plain English, of the worst disaster in modern Tennessee history? The Corps can't blame the breakdown of the Internet for this one; the Corps was not able to explain the situation clearly while talking to the Weather Service on the telephone. To fix this staggering breakdown in communications, the Corps is promising such things as "annual Flood Table Top Exercises" with other agencies, and electronic updates for what the river levels (p. 270). In my opinion, that's not good enough to protect Nashville.

Thankfully, at least three hours before the Corps realized that the Weather Service had been relying on bad information from the Corps, alert managers at the Opryland Hotel had already evacuated their 1,500 guests to safety. Opryland is the largest hotel in the world outside of Las Vegas, and a huge part of Nashville's tourism industry. They saved their guests by looking at the raging River with their own eyes, without any help from the Corps or the Weather Service.

Another ugly fact from the Report is the admission that the Corps failed to use its own eyes on the river, personnel from the U.S. Geological Survey who knew about our River's gages and flood levels. These men and women were available to provide "real-time observations" (p.58) of the Cumberland River but were not called upon to do so, partly due to confusion and to privatization issues. As a result, the Corps had troops that it never deployed.

There are dozens of other very serious questions raised by the Report. There were multiple failures of communication, failures of management, as well as some heroic efforts by some dedicated and experienced individuals. Bottom line: the Report leaves no doubt that the Army Corps and Weather Service could have done a much better job, and must do better in the future. Without such improvement, Tennessee is at terrible risk. We simply must solve these problems before the next flood or emergency.

Thank you again for this hearing, and I look forward to placing additional questions in the record.

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