Flooding destroys heart of Nashville
Posted May 5, 2010 7:39 a.m. EDT
Updated May 5, 2010 7:10 p.m. EDT
TRENTON, Tenn. — The blazing fiddles and screaming guitars at Nashville's famed downtown honky-tonks are a little quieter as the city recovers from flash flooding blamed for at least 29 deaths in three states.
Elsewhere in Nashville, the Country Music Hall of Fame has closed and the Grand Ole Opry – the most famous country music show in the world – had to move its performances.
The Cumberland River, which winds through the heart of the city, spilled over its banks as Nashville received more than 13 inches of pounding rain over the weekend. The flash floods were blamed in the deaths of 18 people in Tennessee alone, including nine in Nashville. Other deaths were reported in Kentucky and Mississippi.
None of the deaths were in the city's entertainment district, a five-block square of honky-tonks and restaurants downtown where animated barkers often stand outside at night encouraging patrons to step inside.
But some businesses had to shut down – a blow to Nashville's economy and reputation as a freewheeling town. The city has more than 11 million visitors annually.
Melissa Patzwaldt, of Raleigh, was one of hundreds evacuated Sunday from the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, which at one point was under more than 10 feet of water.
"Everything had started flooding," she said Wednesday of when she left. "There were some homes you could only see the roofs, and at that point, the parking lot for the hotel had already started flooding."
What stuck with her most, she said, were the images of families entering a local high-school shelter as she left for the airport.
"There had been families there, now coming into the shelter, who were losing their homes," she said. "And they were about to release pressure from the dam and evacuate more people from their homes. That was the saddest part about leaving."
By Tuesday, floodwaters had receded in many parts of the city, although the river was still over its banks. Residents who had frantically fled their homes returned to find mud-caked floors and soggy furniture.
The water at the Country Music Hall of Fame was mostly confined to a mechanical room and did not get in the exhibit area where 112 of country's greatest stars are chronicled in down-home tributes.
At the Opry, five miles northeast of the entertainment district, performer Marty Stuart said he feared water had destroyed instruments, costumes, audio tapes, boots and "just everything that goes along with the Opry and Opry stars."
Singer Chris Young said a special Opry show Tuesday night at the War Memorial Auditorium was a welcome diversion for many residents. Hundreds of people turned out.
"A lot of people coming here have lost either their houses, their possessions or their cars in the storm," he said.
Gaylord Entertainment CEO Colin Reed says it will be at least three months before the massive entertainment complex that also includes the Opryland Hotel and the Opry Mills Mall has guests again.
Rita Helms, a customer service representative at the Opry, said some workers have been distraught.
"It's very sad for the employees and a few have even been in tears," she said.
One of the downtown honky-tonks still open is Robert's Western World - "Nashville's undisputed home of traditional country music" as it proclaims on its website.
"There's not much that can shut us down," bartender Sammy Barrett said in a telephone interview as country music blared in the background.
The entertainment district is generally filled with a mix of tourists and locals - all out for a hand-clapping good time. Some people still milled around the area Tuesday.
"They like the vibe they get here," said Jimmy (The Governor) Hill, who works for a downtown bar and a restaurant. "The bands start playing at 10 in the morning; you don't have things like that in every town."
Mayor Karl Dean also was undeterred. "We will go on being a center of tourism and drawing people to our city," he said.
Some entertainment venues weren't damaged, including the former home of the Grand Ole Opry, the 118-year-old Ryman Auditorium. A Barenaked Ladies concert there next Monday is still scheduled.
On the other side of the river, LP Field, the home of the Tennessee Titans, was drying out: The Titans' logo could once again be seen from the air. A four-day country music festival will be at the stadium in five weeks.
The production of country music in the city also seems have survived unscathed from the more than 13.5 inches of rainfall that fell Saturday and Sunday. "Music Row" - an approximately four-square block area that houses recording studios, record labels, song publishing companies and others on the business side of the music industry - is a mile from the river and wasn't flooded.
The water swelled most of the area's lakes, minor rivers, creeks, streams and drainage systems far beyond capacity. Much of that water then drained into the Cumberland, which snakes through Nashville.
The weekend's storms that spawned tornadoes along with flash flooding also killed six people in Mississippi and four in Kentucky. One person was killed by a tornado in western Tennessee.