The first raindrops started falling shortly before midnight on the last night of April. Weather forecasters had predicted a wet weekend, with the possibility of severe storms, but that’s not unusual for springtime in middle Tennessee.
After all, April showers may bring May flowers, don’t they? During the next 48 hours, some Nashvillians wondered if the rain would never stop.
Most of Nashville’s TV stations went to continual weather forecasts during the weekend, and radar images morphed into a blur of thick rain echoes and rotating winds all day and night. Families retreated to upper floors. Some could not get out of their houses, and others could not get home.
Across Tennessee, 20 people lost their lives in the swirling water, most of them in the Nashville area. Ditches turned into creeks, rivers into lakes, pavement washed away, and bridges became unsafe or collapsed. Two of the interstate highways serving the city became impassable. Nashville’s mayor has since estimated property damage at more than $1.5 billion, not including road infrastructure.
The music community was especially hard-hit. Many songwriters, recording artists, musicians and music industry professionals lost part or all of their homes and belongings. The Grand Ole Opry stage went under two feet of water, and in Studio B behind the Opry stage, where TV shows such as “Hee Haw” were taped over the last three decades, the water was 12 feet deep. The Opryland Hotel was evacuated, and will be out of service for months for repairs.
The Nashville Symphony lost two Steinway pianos, the Ford Theater in the Country Music Hall of Fame was swamped, and much of Nashville’s historic district along the Cumberland River was inundated in a brown, muddy mess.
Along with priceless archives and icons of Nashville’s music heritage, irreplaceable instruments were damaged or destroyed. Many of those instruments were stored at a complex called Soundcheck along the Cumberland River. Touring bands had grown accustomed to leaving most of their equipment at the facility, where guitars and amps could be serviced and the groups could rehearse when off the road. The Musicans Hall of Fame, while preparing to move to a new facility, had stored exhibits there, including a Stratocaster guitar played by Jimi Hendrix. An estimated 600 musicians were affected, from stars like Keith Urban and Vince Gill to the anonymous players in backup bands.
Fortunately, said Dustin Williams, owner of Williams Fine Violins, many of the city’s best instruments were spared. “I heard stories about how, when musicians woke up and saw water coming into the house, they grabbed their violins first, even as they warned their wife and kids to get out. About the only people who lost really good instruments were those who were out of town and didn’t know about the flood. ”
Williams said that most fiddle players own only two or three, but guitar players may own far more instruments. “With the poor guitar players, it’s hard to get 20 or 30 instruments in the car.”
Even on Music Row, where most of Nashville’s record companies, music publishing houses, management companies, and booking agencies – the flood caused major disruption. Many employees couldn’t get to work, and some were desperately trying to salvage their homes and belongings. One of the city’s two water treatment plants was severely damaged, ironically forcing residents and businesses to keep water consumption at a minimum. At BMI’s Nashville office, where about 400 employees work, water pressure was insufficient to operate most of the bathrooms or the air conditioning. The office was forced to operate with limited staffing for more than a week, and employees used fans and turned down lighting to minimize the heat.
Del Bryant, BMI’s President and CEO, sent a message to employees immediately after the flood, saying in part, “The unprecedented rain event and flooding Nashville has suffered these past few days has had a devastating effect on some of our BMI Nashville family, and has made even the most ordinary activities difficult or impossible…including getting to work at BMI. I want all of you to know that we will stand behind you as you strive to get your lives, your homes and those of your family and loved ones back to normal. Your safety and well-being are our primary concern as we all work to recover from this disaster.”
It was not Nashville’s first major flood, nor will it be the last. In Middle Tennessee, many of the flood gauges were washed away. Civil engineers speculated that this was a 500-year or even a 100-year flood, but nobody has been counting that long.
Despite the devastation, Nashville began drying out and rising again a few days after the water receded. The Grand Ole Opry continued its performances from a temporary home in the War Memorial Auditorium, the Country Music Hall of Fame began receiving visitors again, and hillbilly drawls wafted from the open doors of honky-tonks along lower Broadway. Songwriters were singing new tunes about The Flood. The city was back in business.
Nashvillians have found their smiles again, but don’t bother with more jokes about Noah and the flood. It’s not a laughing matter here.