This National Geographic piece begins by recapping the devastating effects the 2010 flood had on the people of Nashville, and then used Nashville’s experience as a foreboding of what similar impacts others may face as extreme weather events pick up across the nation. The consequences are going to be numerous, multi-layered, and lasting to livelihoods economically and mentally. Brad Paisley, country singer and Nashville resident, remarked post-Nashville-flood, “I felt powerless in a way I’ve never felt before with weather…since that flood, I’ve never once taken normalcy for granted.” Many more Americans may soon unfortunately share Paisley’s thoughts.
Weather Gone Wild
Cross-post from National Geographic
By Peter Miller
The weekend forecast for Nashville, Tennessee, called for two to four inches of rain. But by the afternoon of Saturday, May 1, 2010, parts of the city had seen more than six inches, and the rain was still coming down in sheets.
Mayor Karl Dean was in the city’s Emergency Communications Center monitoring the first reports of flash flooding when something on a TV screen caught his eye. It was a live shot of cars and trucks on Interstate 24 being swamped by a tributary of the Cumberland River southeast of the city. Floating past them in the slow lane was a 40-foot-long portable building from the Lighthouse Christian School.
“We’ve got a building running into cars,” the TV anchorman was saying.
Dean had been in the “war room” for hours. But when he saw the building floating down the highway, he says, “it became very clear to me what an extreme situation we had on our hands.” Soon 911 calls were coming in from every part of the city. Police, fire, and rescue teams were dispatched in boats. One crew in a skiff headed out to I-24 to pluck the driver of an 18-wheeler from the chest-high water. Other teams pulled families off rooftops and workers from flooded warehouses. Still, 11 people died in the city that weekend.
This was a new kind of storm for Nashville. “It came down harder than I’ve ever seen it rain here,” says Brad Paisley, the country singer, who owns a farm outside town. “You know how when you’re in a mall and it’s coming down in sheets, and you think, I’ll give it five minutes, and when it lets up I’ll run to my car? Well, imagine that it didn’t let up until the next day.”
Over at NewsChannel 5, the local CBS station, meteorologist Charlie Neese could see where the weather was coming from. The jet stream had gotten stuck over the city, and one thunderstorm after another was sucking up warm, humid air from the Gulf of Mexico, rumbling hundreds of miles northeast, and dumping the water on Nashville. While Neese and his colleagues were broadcasting from a second-floor studio, the first-floor newsroom was being swamped by backed-up sewers. “Water was shooting up through the toilets,” Neese says.
The Cumberland River, which winds through the heart of Nashville, started rising Saturday morning. At Ingram Barge Company, David Edgin, a former towboat captain, had more than seven boats and 70 barges out on the waterway. As the rain continued to pound down, he called the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to get its forecast of how high the river would rise. “It’s blowing up our models,” the duty officer said. “We’ve never seen anything like this.” Edgin ordered all of Ingram’s boats to tie up at safe locations along the riverbank. It turned out to be a smart move.
By Saturday night the Cumberland had risen at least 15 feet, to 35 feet, and the corps was predicting it would crest at 42. But the rain didn’t stop Sunday, and the river didn’t crest until Monday—at 52 feet, 12 feet above flood stage. Spilling into downtown streets, the flood caused some two billion dollars in damage.
When the sun came out on Monday morning, parts of Nashville had seen more than 13 inches of rain—about twice the previous record of 6.6 inches set during Hurricane Frederic in 1979. Pete Fisher, manager of the Grand Ole Opry, needed a canoe to get into the famous theater, which is on the riverfront northeast of the city. He and audio engineer Tommy Hensley paddled across a parking lot and through a side door. “We basically just floated into the theater,” Fisher says. “It was pitch black, and we shined a light on the stage. If you’d been sitting in the front row, you’d have had seven feet of water over your head.”
In warehouses along the river, the flood had submerged millions of dollars’ worth of equipment, including components for a 36-by-60-foot video screen that had been assembled for Brad Paisley’s upcoming concert tour, which was set to begin in less than three weeks. “Every amp, every guitar I’m used to, was destroyed,” Paisley says. “I felt powerless in a way I’ve never felt before with weather.”
The experience changed him. “Here in Nashville our weather is manageable, normally,” he says. “But since that flood, I’ve never once taken normalcy for granted.”
There’s been a change in the weather. Extreme events like the Nashville flood—described by officials as a once-in-a-millennium occurrence—are happening more frequently than they used to. A month before Nashville, torrential downpours dumped 11 inches of rain on Rio de Janeiro in 24 hours, triggering mud slides that buried hundreds. About three months after Nashville, record rains in Pakistan caused flooding that affected more than 20 million people. In late 2011 floods in Thailand submerged hundreds of factories near Bangkok, creating a worldwide shortage of computer hard drives.
And it’s not just heavy rains that are making headlines. During the past decade we’ve also seen severe droughts in places like Texas, Australia, and Russia, as well as in East Africa, where tens of thousands have taken refuge in camps. Deadly heat waves have hit Europe, and record numbers of tornadoes have ripped across the United States. Losses from such events helped push the cost of weather disasters in 2011 to an estimated $150 billion worldwide, a roughly 25 percent jump from the previous year. In the U.S. last year a record 14 events caused a billion dollars or more of damage each, far exceeding the previous record of nine such disasters in 2008.
What’s going on? Are these extreme events signals of a dangerous, human-made shift in Earth’s climate? Or are we just going through a natural stretch of bad luck?
Read the full article here.