In May of 2010, Nashville was flooded. If you lived in Nashville at that time, it’s likely that that event is, and forever will be, ingrained in your memory. You know where you were when it happened, how you reacted, how your friends reacted, and how you handled the devastating aftermath. I myself, while a Nashville resident at the time, was out of town visiting my family. I remember my own shock and horror as I first saw the flood on the news, and then feeling as if my fingers couldn’t dial my friends’ numbers fast enough to see if they and their homes were okay. I remember returning to Nashville the next day and seeing that the waters were still as high as the stop signs downtown. I remember helping friends clean up their flooded homes in the weeks that followed. I remember the city coming together to recover.
Reice Ann Towns was able to photographically document much of that flood. She has since researched the history of Nashville’s floods and has published her own book, Forty Feet and Rising: Nashville’s Historic Floods 1793 – 2010 on the subject. For anyone looking for a historical perspective on Nashville’s floods, you should contact Reice Ann and order a copy of this important work. Read on to learn more about her and her book.
McKay’s: How did you become interested in the topic of Nashville Floods?
RA: I received my first digital camera as a birthday present in 2009. Once I figured out how to use it, I became a shutterbug. I was working in Metro Center at the time of the 2010 flood, and Metro had the area closed for three and a half days – I think it was because of the levy there. My office was closed, of course, so I went around to different areas of the city and began taking pictures. I showed them to my coworkers, and they suggested I write a book. I thought they were joking around until they admitted they were being serious. I talked to The History Press in South Carolina about my proposal, but they turned me down since I contacted them in the summer of 2010 (they wanted more time to pass before publishing it). Before I was turned down though, the man I was working with suggested I write the book from a historical perspective rather than doing a picture book. I did some initial research at the downtown public library, and when I saw how much information was out there I thought, “Ok, I can do this.”
McKay’s: You mentioned that “previous actions and lessons unlearned affected the metropolitan area during the devastating May 2010 flood.” Do you think those lessons have been learned since 2010?
RA: I’m not sure how to answer that one, unless we have – goodness forbid – a future flood where Nashville could see if any of the changes were implemented. I think the NWS (National Weather Service) and Corps of Engineers learned their lessons as far as keeping the lines of communication open so both agencies know what the other one is doing all the time. Metro has made changes in future development requiring builders to raise the height of whatever they’re building to an elevation where future flooding will be minimalized, and future development is now forbidden in areas where Metro bought out and raised homes in the floodplains. Part of the reason why I included previous floods is to show how the flood patterns kept repeating themselves. For example, many of the same streets and areas that flooded in 1926-27 (i.e. downtown Nashville and East Nashville) were the same streets and areas that flooded in 1929, 1937, 1975, and 2010.
Here’s an example of a lesson unlearned: On Jan. 22, 1849, The Daily Gazette stated the following: “It would be well for our city, if every house within the limits of the inundation, used for a dwelling was levelled to the earth, and future buildings of that kind prohibited. … There are vacant lots all over the city, in high and dry localities. These might be put to use and rendered a public blessing.” As I mentioned to many people, do you think the people back then might have been on to something, and we missed the boat? A few months after the 1975 flood, developers began building residential subdivisions in areas that had been flooded which added more damage to the 2010 flood (the areas had been open land owned by individuals until developers bought their property).
McKay’s: In all of the floods you’ve covered since 1793, are there any that you would consider to be your favorite? Perhaps “favorite” isn’t the right word, but are there any that stand out the most to you? Or were the most interesting to you for one reason or another?
RA: No, I can’t really think of one flood I would consider my favorite or that would stand out. I thought it interesting though to see the estimated amount of damage in the previous floods – like $1 to $2 million in damages, and businesses’ property loss of $125 or even $40,000. The monetary amounts sound laughable now, but I know at the time those floods occurred it was a lot of money to them. One item that stood out to me as being humorous is that there was a steel tank 14 feet in diameter and 30 feet long that washed up in the vicinity of the Jefferson Street Bridge in the 1926-27 flood.
McKay’s: This book must have taken a long time to research! Care to share any of your research tips? Or ways for staying motivated when the research feel daunting?
RA: Yes, a lot of research was involved. I used to joke that the downtown public library was my home away from home. I received a lot of my materials from a dissertation by Samuel Adams Weakley, and I spent many hours on the microfiche and microfilm machines at the library. I also kept and used many newspaper articles from The Tennessean, The City Paper, and other newspapers for the 2010 flood. For the 1926-27, 1929, 1937, and 1975 floods I got my articles from The Nashville Banner. I took a few “mental stress breaks” when I got overwhelmed.
McKay’s: Your book offers a lot of information that would appeal to a variety of readers. Who would you say the target audience is for this book? The average layman? Government? Organizations like the Army Corps of Engineers? Local Nashville folks? People studying disasters and disaster relief?
RA: I wrote the book with the target audience being local Nashvillians, although anyone else in the groups you listed above might be interested. It might also be of interest to high school or college students who have to research a project and/or write a paper about floods/natural disasters.
McKay’s: Any future books currently in the works?
RA: No, I’m not presently working on any new books.
McKay’s: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
RA: When I’m not writing, I enjoy reading, photography, spending quality time with family and friends, and cross stitching.
McKay’s: Where can readers learn more about you and any updates, events or future books?
RA: Unfortunately I do not have my own website, and I do not have any book signings lined up in the immediate future. I self-published my book and am having a difficult time getting a book signing as the publisher has a non-returnable policy if the bookseller does not sell the book. If anyone is interested in purchasing a copy of the book, I have several copies available on hand for resell; the cost is $30 (Author House wanted to charge $38, and I told them no way). Other online retailers sell the book for $37.99 or higher (I just saw on Indigo the price is $55.50). My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Please be sure to identify in the subject line something about purchasing a copy of the book so I won’t delete it as an advertisement email.
Reice Ann Towns grew up in Nashville and has lived there for the majority of her life. She has enjoyed research and writing since she was in elementary school. In her spare time she enjoys reading, photography, and cross stitching.