Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Obama declares 4-county region a disaster area

By Michael Cass and Brad Schrade • THE TENNESSEAN • May 5, 2010 President Barack Obama declared four flood-ravaged Middle Tennessee counties a federal disaster area Tuesday as residents continued to battle ongoing water restrictions, power outages and traffic problems. The president's declaration will send much-needed federal aid to help individuals and businesses in Davidson, Sumner, Williamson and Hickman counties recover from the historic flooding that submerged entire neighborhoods and left key segments of the region's economy in tatters. Other counties are expected to get assistance later. "The assessment part goes forward, answering questions goes forward, and then we'll actually move into the recovery process of digging out the city and repairing things," Mayor Karl Dean said. "And that'll take a lot of time. We don't know right now what the full extent of the damage is. We know it's great." Preliminary damage estimates are in the hundreds of millions of dollars and probably billions, officials said, but the most immediate concern Tuesday continued to be maintaining clean water. Dean and others repeated pleas for residents to conserve, asking them to cut their water use in half. One of the city's two water treatment plants remained submerged, and water reserves plummeted to 37 percent. Seventeen storm-related deaths have been reported across the state. Davidson County was hit hardest with nine. The number in Davidson County was reduced from 10 after authorities determined one death was due to natural causes, not severe weather. At least one young man was still missing after he and some friends went tubing on Mill Creek after the weekend storm. Police also are trying to determine whether any homeless people are missing from a handful of known homeless camps in the area. "At this point we haven't gotten any word of any homeless perishing in this flood, but it's of great concern to us," police spokeswoman Kris Mumford said. Updated numbers of people staying in shelters were not available late Tuesday. On Monday, the American Red Cross said it was operating 17 emergency shelters throughout the region and housing about 900 people. Federal aid is assured Obama's declaration will bring immediate assistance to those affected by the storm, and it's likely that additional counties will be included in the relief as the paperwork is filed. A dollar amount was not tied to the president's announcement. Assistance can include low-cost loans for uninsured property owners, funds for temporary housing and home repairs, and other programs for residents and businesses. State and local governments, as well as nonprofits working with the affected counties, also may be eligible, according to a White House news release. "The federal government has moved quickly to assist Tennessee, and I appreciate the quick action by President Obama to declare the first of what I expect will be many counties authorized for federal assistance," Gov. Phil Bredesen said in a statement. The state requested disaster assistance for 52 counties. Relief can't come fast enough for Mark Carlisle. The 48-year-old private contractor spent two hours trapped in his attic on Sunday as floodwaters rose. A boat crew rescued him as the waters climbed to 8 feet inside the home on Delray Drive in the Nations neighborhood, which was flooded by Richland Creek. The waters moved in so fast Sunday that Carlisle lost everything, including his truck, about $20,000 worth of tools and his furniture. He didn't have flood insurance. "We need our government to step up and really do something," Carlisle said. "Yesterday we had looters down here." Many residents without flood insurance, such as Bellevue resident Malcolm Lyell, struggled to figure out how to move forward. "It's something I've never had to do before, so I'm a rookie at it," Lyell said, as he was pulling items out of his house. "Thankfully, I've got good friends and neighbors. You've just got to do what you do." Water levels worrisome The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the dams along the Cumberland River system, continued to express concerns about the water levels at various reservoirs. But the Corps is releasing water to try to bring the lake levels down in a controlled way without flooding areas downriver. The Corps timed releases Monday and Tuesday to help preserve Nashville's lone functioning water treatment plant on Omohundro Drive, which came perilously close to getting flooded Monday night before the river crested. That would have knocked out the city's drinking supply — a disaster Metro avoided by 8 inches. Corps engineers are in a race against Mother Nature. The goal in coming days is to reduce the water levels at Old Hickory Lake and Percy Priest Lake, which are still high, before more rain comes. Clear skies are forecast through the weekend, except for isolated thunderstorms Friday. The system of locks and dams is designed to help control flooding and the flow of the river. "Anytime we've got water above where we're supposed to be, we're uncomfortable," said Hershel Whitworth, a hydraulic engineer with the Corps. "Our ability to control the river is greatly diminished." Officials from Metro and the Corps said the damaged levee at MetroCenter is structurally sound, though they continue to monitor it. Assessment teams work As floodwaters started to drop, Dean said 40 assessment teams fanned out across southeastern Davidson County, completing more than 10 percent of the countywide damage assessment. Public Works Director Billy Lynch said the city should have "a pretty good picture" of the toll on roads, bridges and sidewalks sometime this weekend. Metro opened two disaster information centers Tuesday to provide general information to residents, and Dean said he expects two more to open today. The two centers that are already open are at Bellevue Community Center, 656 Colice Jeanne Road, and Coleman Community Center, 384 Thompson Lane. They're open from noon to 8 p.m. Dean said the river should be back below flood stage at 40 feet by the end of the week. But the city is still asking residents and businesses to limit their water consumption — and struggling to get them to heed the warnings. Metro Water Services Director Scott Potter said the city's water reserves, usually above 60 percent of capacity, had dropped Tuesday to 48 percent by 11 a.m. and 37 percent by 6 p.m. "That alarms me," Potter said. State officials ordered residents in Davidson and Williamson counties to use water only for hygiene and health purposes. The flooding also continued to affect numerous other city services. Metro schools will remain closed today. MTA buses will resume limited service Thursday. And about 3,500 Nashville Electric Service customers remained without power, including businesses between First and Fifth avenues and Commerce and Demonbreun streets downtown, as well as much of the MetroCenter area, NES President and CEO Decosta Jenkins said. Dean said Music City would "fully recover and continue to be the great city that it is, a great place to live and a great place to visit." "I do have this innate sense ... that we're going to get over this relatively quickly. It's not going to be easy. It's going to involve a lot of money. It's going to involve a lot of work. But we'll get it done. And the city will keep moving forward as we're doing it."

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