Nashville Flood Diagram

The program manager for Metro Water Services discouraged elevating homes in flood-prone areas, recommending buyouts instead.

Weighing the pros and cons of mitigation against those of home buyouts is a conversation Brentwood residents brought to city commissioners on May 11, 2021, requesting the city change an existing ordinance so that they can build decks on their river-adjacent homes as safe, posh, rear exits. This follows their original, successful fight for an amendment to another flood prevention ordinance to allow homes to be elevated in the first place.

Wildwood resident Mary Hesselrode and other victims of Harpeth River overflow, recovering from March’s severe thunderstorms, successfully pursued the 2019 amendment because Tennessee Hazard Mitigation Officer Doug Worden proved disinclined to authorize a FEMA grant to fund the elevation of her home, saying he would rather buy out houses than lift them. This befuddled Hesselrode and neighbors because they could not understand why the state or FEMA would prefer the much larger cost.

Metro Nashville Water Program Manager Roger Lindsey addressed this from the perspective of a buyout proponent at Harpeth Conservancy’s monthly Conservation Conversation Wednesday evening, May 26, 2021, just two weeks after Brentwood residents stood before the Brentwood Commission en masse in an appeal for decks. He explained that there are other considerations that make buyouts more palatable than risk mitigation efforts.

“From our perspective, if you’ve got flood insurance and you’ve got access to increased custom compliance insurance, you can elevate your house,” Lindsey said in direct response to a question about Brentwood residents wanting to elevate their homes rather than take a buyout to move elsewhere. “If you own a flood-prone house, a house that has flooded multiple times in a neighborhood where we are already buying houses to demolish, we would far, much prefer to purchase your house to demolish it rather than to try to elevate it because, in the big scheme of things when there’s a major event, we still have to send emergency personnel in to try to extract you from your home. It’s still dangerous.”

Tennessee Association of Floodplain Managers President Roger Lindsey has a B.S. in civil engineering and an M.S. in environmental engineering from Mississippi State University, and he is an ASFPM-certified floodplain manager, a certification he uses not only as program manager for Metro Water Services but also as practice leader for Stormwater Master Planning and floodplain administrator for Davidson County with 35 years of experience in environmental regulation; water and waste water design; construction; and water resource and stormwater engineering. He is also the current chairman of the Franklin Planning Commission.

Lindsey’s contention was that, while buyouts are forced on no one, they are the default preference of pundits and government for flood-prone properties.

“You may have a whole floor built below your house. You’re entitled to do that if you’ve got your own insurance, but we’re not going to make a grant to elevate houses. […] Our dollars are far better spent making those flood-prone houses go away.”

Harpeth Conservancy hosts monthly events on a broad spectrum of environmental topics; this month’s concentration was “Flooding in Tennessee.” Lindsey’s statements at the event came during the question-and-answer round that followed his presentation on the increased flood incidence statewide, which involved several direct comparisons to other cities, regions and states across the country. He covered the extremes of the 2010 flood in Tennessee, characterizing it as a century flood event, and then chronicled a plethora of 100-year flood events nationwide since then, amassing a list of some 20 more.

Whites Creek, Union Creek and others saw a century flood event submerge parts of North Nashville in 2013. Wolf Creek Dam, one of the largest flood control structures on the Cumberland River, suffered record discharges from another in 2019. Williamson County alone saw the 100-year flood event in 2010 followed by a half-century event in 2017 and finally a second century event in March 2021. A Brentwood resident pointed out to city commissioners that there was only a quarter-percent chance of those three events occurring in a decade’s time.

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