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Nashville Looks to Stage Comeback After Floods

June 23, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Six weeks after record floods devastated Nashville, the city is making a comeback. Jeffrey Brown examines the rebuilding efforts of its citizens and its vibrant music industry.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: Six weeks after a devastating flood, Nashville looks to make a comeback.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: If it’s Nashville and there’s a need to rouse the community, what better way than music? Last night, the capital of country music staged a special benefit concert dubbed Nashville Rising to aid victims of the flooding that hit this city in Middle Tennessee in early May.

In a 24-hour stretch beginning May 1, Nashville and the surrounding area got drenched in 13 inches of rain, causing the banks of the Cumberland River to overflow. More than 30 people died in the region. At least 12,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. Parts of downtown Nashville were inundated with water. And landmarks, including the Grand Ole Opry, were hit.

Weeks later, with a benefit concert about to get under way, we found a mix of continuing loss and worries about the future alongside a steady rebuilding effort and a strong determination to show that Nashville is well on its way back.

Even as the rain was falling, officials with Hands On Nashville, a local volunteer group, were mobilizing thousands of people to coordinate aid and rescue efforts.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, executive director, Hands On Nashville: No, are you the host church over all of the PDA folks that are coming into town?

JEFFREY BROWN: Earlier this week, we found director Brian Williams still at it in the Inglewood neighborhood of East Nashville, one of the hardest-hit areas.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: I would say that the need hasn’t lessened. The need has changed. And it’s been a constant change from day one.

You have those immediate of shelters and food distribution and water distribution, and then you’re cleaning up neighborhoods, and then you focus on roads and homes. And now we’re starting to move slowly into rebuilding efforts.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tennessee is, of course, the Volunteer State. And everyone we spoke to took great pride in the way people in this community came together.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: It was very emotional. There were certainly times that I would go out to a site, and it would choke you up. It would bring tears to your eyes, not only because you see the need of the homeowner and the distress that they’re feeling, but you see perfect strangers who are walking up and saying, how can I help?

JEFFREY BROWN: On this day, one person in great need was Jeanette Harris, whose home was being gutted. She’s happy for the volunteer help, she says, but frustrated by the pace of government aid.

The city is in the process of offering buyouts to over 300 homeowners. Harris is hoping to be one of them.

JEANETTE HARRIS, homeowner: I’m just at a standstill. I can’t move on. I don’t have the money to move on. I don’t have the money to pay for the outside living, because you have to live somewhere else. You can’t live in the home with the mold.

JEFFREY BROWN: And when it got that high, had you ever seen anything like that?

KARL DEAN, mayor of Nashville, Tenn.: No, nothing. I have seen the river high, but nothing like this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nashville mayor Karl Dean joined us on the Shelby Street Bridge over the Cumberland.

KARL DEAN: We had homes that were just flooded, that are in the floodway, and some suffered more than 50 percent damage. And we will be worked with people to determine whether those buildings will be bought out.

Other people have had extensive damage, whether in the floodplain or further away from the river. And their damage is such that the money they’re getting from FEMA is not enough to totally restore those buildings, and we’re going to work with nonprofits and banks to try to find ways to help them.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, signs of that movement abound. In the Bellevue neighborhood, repairs are well along, with workmen painting and adding final touches.

FEMA checks, up to $29,000, have helped many, though huge gaps remain.

KARL DEAN: We still need more money, obviously. And we have — I will say, that FEMA responded quickly, and I think appropriately, and they put a lot of people on the ground very, very quickly.

JEFFREY BROWN: In many parts of Nashville, including the famous downtown, life seems largely back to normal.

But downtown also holds the home of the Nashville Symphony, a classical-style building, but actually quite new. Several feet of water got into its basement, knocking out its electrical and other systems.

Symphony president Alan Valentine puts the damage at $42 million, as work continues to reopen the hall by early next year.

ALAN VALENTINE, CEO, Nashville Symphony: Frankly, the cost of this problem is going to leave us with a gap that’s going to have to be met, where we had about $10 million worth of flood insurance. We have some assistance from FEMA, but, in the end, there will be a gap.

JEFFREY BROWN: Several miles away, we came across this amazing scene showing the impact of the flood on country and rock music, a warehouse of instruments and equipment, with mold, rather than melodies, in the air, a broken piano, a bin of damaged guitars, including some vintage Les Pauls, everything in various states of disrepair, and some serious repair work ongoing.

We watched Murph Wanka as he labored to bring a Hammond B-3 organ back to life, and Ed Beever, doing the same for guitars and other string instruments. Beever, Wanka and all these instruments used to be housed at Soundcheck, an enormous facility just off the river that offered Nashville’s musicians space to rehearse their music and store their instruments.

And how high was the water?

BEN JUMPER, owner, Soundcheck: Just above the door handle.

JEFFREY BROWN: Soundcheck owner Ben Jumper:

BEN JUMPER: It was really, really bad, and a lot of — a lot of great musicians, famous and non-famous, working, everyday musicians, work out of here — and it was devastating, the instrument loss here. I have literally seen 1,000-plus guitars thrown in dumpsters and…

JEFFREY BROWN: Thrown in the dumpster?

BEN JUMPER: Thrown in the dumpsters, beyond repair.

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, Soundcheck housed instruments for superstars like Brad Paisley and Vince Gill, but also for hundreds of musicians like Dave Roe, a bass player and highly regarded studio musician who has worked with the likes of Johnny Cash. Roe loss tonight bass guitars he had stored at Soundcheck.

DAVE ROE, musician: Having insurance on that many instruments is kind of — it’s a big nut to crack. It could end up being like a couple of house payments for you.

So, you put them in there and you feel safe. And, obviously, I felt — I did. We all felt safe against theft and flood. Keeping that many guitars around the house is a — it’s a real liability. And people see you coming in and out with that kind of stuff, it’s a real easy target for thieves. And — but nobody thought about the river, you know?

JEFFREY BROWN: Ben Jumper is now, of course, thinking about the river, but he’s rebuilding Soundcheck anyway, and expects to open the first of his nine rehearsal rooms by the end of summer.

BEN JUMPER: It was a really tough decision, but we’re committed. We love our business. It’s family here. We got SBA disaster funds that are going to help us get back open. I will be paying on them for the next 30 years, but that’s OK.

JEFFREY BROWN: For his part, Mayor Dean is also looking to the long-term future, but he has a more immediate message.

KARL DEAN: We need to get the word out to all of America and all the world that Nashville’s downtown is wide-open.

JEFFREY BROWN: Last night, certainly, the stars were out in Nashville. Organizers estimated the concert would raise $2 million to $3 million to help the city continue to move forward.