Friday, September 02, 2005

Some Would Bury New Orleans Rather Than Rescue Her

What if they had merely said, "Don't rebuild North Nashville; move it"?: the North End of Nashville looking north from Downtown during the 1937 flood. The ballpark is historic "Sulphur Dell," which sat near Cherry St. (now 4th Ave.), Summer St. (now 5th Ave.), and Jackson St.
Photograph reprint with permission from and courtesy of

The Cumberland River used to have regular flooding problems, which meant that parts of Nashville were submerged at various times in its history. The lower parts of the North End in particular were prone to flooding and contamination of drinking water. The picture above is reminiscent of the pictures coming out of New Orleans this week. What if after the '37 flood the majority of people simply said, "Let's just give the river sections of Nashville. We just shouldn't try to build in these areas. Let's just move everything to higher ground." Here's a list of what we would not have if that kind of thinking prevailed:
  • Bicentennial Mall
  • A greenway where an historic old ballpark used to sit
  • Farmer's Market
  • The coming Museum of African-American Music and Culture
  • Major residential developments like Harrison Lofts
  • Facilities where various agencies of state functioning
  • Parking for state workers
  • Small and large businesses up and down Jefferson and 8th Ave.
  • Exploding neighborhood development in Germantown, Salemtown, and points west
Putting the kibosh on the North End would have sacrificed so much. But shortsightedness did not prevail. Instead, federal funds were channeled into the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to build locks and dams to help our community as well as others across the Ohio River Valley shed.

TVA uses 35 dams, in an expensive process, to reduce the effects of flooding by holding back the water from heavy rains in reservoirs. The TVA system prevents about $224 million in flood damage in the Tennessee Valley and along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers every year. As late as May 2003, Nashville experienced enough rainfall that could have led to flooding on the river, but TVA performed a balancing act to hold water in Percy Priest Reservoir until it experienced flooding. At that point they released some into the Cumberland without causing the flooding seen in Nashville before TVA. While 2005 water levels at both Percy Priest and the Cumberland are at lower levels due to less rain, at the beginning of May 2003, the Army Corps Chief of Water Management told the Tennessean, "Without the dams ... Nashville would have experienced devastating floods this week."

We can only imagine what would have happened if those with vision no longer than the nose on their face had prevailed and placed a kibosh on flooded sections of our city. Fortunately, those who believed that there is more to gain by rescuing flood prone areas than by cutting them loose carried the day. It was expensive, but the nation kicked in and we now enjoy the benefits of that investment.

There are those who want to put the kibosh on New Orleans now. They argue that it is a big mistake to have a city on land prone to flooding. They are unmoved, even against those who offer significant ideas for prevention, including landfill, new opportunities to build flood resistant structures, reinforced levees, locks and gate systems ideas from the Dutch (who are masters at reclaiming dry land from its watery grave), technologically advanced surge walls, and barrier islands. They tell us that New Orleans was a mistake all along and if we want it rebuilt then the nation owes the Crescent City nothing, if not mere pittance, to assist in that process.

If Nashville was worthy among others in Tennessee to have substantial federal funds spent to build and to maintain and to update a system of 10 dams and locks affecting its waterway, New Orleans is much more valuable as Nick Mamatas (via Chris Wage) points out:
New Orleans must and will be rebuilt because it contains the largest port in the US -- plus five other ports in the nearby region, all already under one coordinated framework. Six thousand vessels containing 134,000 shipping containers arrived there last year, and ... moved through rail, highway, and ports along 14,5000 miles of inland waterways. The big port, cleverly named the Port of New Orleans for the city that necessarily springs up around ports, handled 32 million tons of cargo last year, three quarters of it imported. Most of the exported stuff is corn, soy, and cotton. Then there's the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, which carries 11% of the oil the US consumes into the interior.
The Port of New Orleans is more than just a local community on a coast. It's been America's Horn of Plenty sending our commercial bounty out to feed the world and bringing back riches leading us to economic prosperity. Some of those riches no doubt finance the maintenance of 35 expensive TVA dams. New Orleans is the main valve feeding our need for oil and gas; you may not believe that New Orleans is more than a Louisiana port, but the Georgia residents who are paying over $5.00 a gallon for gas and Missouri residents who are paying over $3.00 a gallon for gas know that their livelihood is entwined with the welfare of New Orleans. Oil can be brought in from anywhere, including from strategic reserves. But it has to be refined into gas somewhere, and New Orleans is that somewhere.

So, when you hear of people who are seriously suggesting that we ought to cut New Orleans loose or let the sea have her or rip her people from their hometown and move them to higher suburbs, just remember the good that New Orleans brings us. Relocating New York or San Francisco would never enter our minds. Not spending federal funds to rebuild any other major port city would not be an option. And those who argue that rebuilding New Orleans is the sole responsibility of its local population are simply willing to take from her bounty and ungraciously give back nothing in return when nature brings her to her knees. That's called greed in my book of vices.

Bear in mind that it could have easily been done in Nashville in 1937, except that those who lived in another hopeful time with far more insight and far less quit saw the value of engineering and flood management. I cannot imagine Nashville without a North End. I cannot fathom an America without her Crescent City. It would cost us far more to forget and to bury New Orleans than to bring her back. It would cost us a piece of ourselves.

UPDATE: historic floods returned to the area in 2010.


  1. I have already sent this to my sister and will send it to anybody else who hasn't throught this one through.

    I appreciate the time and thought you have poured into this, and your other posts.

  2. Thanks for writing so eloquently about one of my absolute favorite parts of Nashville, today and yesterday.


  3. Since Baton Rouge is now stuck with a majority of former N.O. people, I think that it would make a great landfill...since part of the city is already built on one.

  4. North Nashville isn't below sea level. Corp of Engineers can only do so much. TVA stopped the serious flooding. Can't dam up the Mississippi.

    Just saying.

  5. They did demolish and remove neighborhoods in the areas of North Nashville that flooded. There were devastating floods in the area in 1927, 1937, 1939 and 1950. Germantown was above flood level and survived. The flooded area in this photo, between Jefferson and the State Capitol was demolished, all of it is gone and has been for many years. Helps to know the history of Nashville and the truth behind a photo when using the photo to make a point. The same thing happened across the Jefferson Street Bridge in East Nashville. All the neighborhoods in the flood prone areas were removed.

    1. I am aware that slums in this area were cleared after the floods. Catastrophic events are historically used to clear poor and working class people from affected areas. However, Sulphur Dell did not relocate. Neither did many of the industrial businesses that occupied the area, including the business offices related to the Nashville Union stockyards.

      But my real point in this post was to point out all of the current amenities, like the state park and the Farmers Market (both of which flooded in 2010), would not exist in our area if we mandated the moves that were proposed for New Orleans. Same applies to the new ballpark, which is built on flood plain. That ballpark, along with its real estate developments (flood-resistant condos and apartments built for wealthier people) were not subject to questions about the wisdom of building in this area. But I've got plenty of 2010 photos on this blog that showed the area south of Jeff St. underwater.

      I have no problem with prohibiting neighborhoods on flood plain as long as it is applied equitably regardless of economic class or social standing. Using catastrophe as an excuse for clearance and economic development for wealthier neighbors, though, is another matter. People are living and even more will live in this area because Nashville has determined that they are worthier to live there than previous generations who chose to do so.