The past 18 months have seen a cascade of disasters, both natural and man-made, and have shown how easily a natural calamity can be exacerbated by poor planning and inadequate response. The fires in the west and recent hurricane-induced flooding have raised questions about how our country and its infrastructure will withstand the increasingly frequent extreme weather events arising from global climate change. And Nashvillians didn’t have to look at national news to deal with these issues.
Since March 2020, the city has suffered a deadly tornado, flash floods, bombardment, ice storm and other flash floods, all with the COVID-19 pandemic in the background. We can be sure that there is more to come, be it wind or water. And that raises a question: how ready are we?
The Emergency Management Office, headed by District Chief Jay Servais, is the Metro agency responsible for disaster preparedness and response. Servais calls Nashville “one of the best prepared cities in the country,” citing a culture of collaboration between different departments where there might otherwise be struggles for influence, power or credit. He says the OEM conducts emergency planning exercises with different departments in Metro and emphasizes the overall emergency management plan, which includes every agency in the city as well as nonprofits and d ‘other partners, describing roles and plans for cooperation in the event of a crisis. When asked if there was a creepy file somewhere in his office listing various hypothetical disasters that his agency might have to respond to, Servais replied, basically, yes.
âWe try to have, every year, each department has a scenario-based tabletop exercise, where we meet and discuss, ‘What will it take to tax our resources?’ Says Servais.
Among the areas where the city could improve its preparedness and response to disasters, he said, is a plan and the capacity to shelter displaced people for longer periods as well as more effective use of translators.
Unfortunately flash floods are a fairly common occurrence in Middle Tennessee, and after each such event, the OEM – which has a whitewater rescue team – examines the effectiveness of its response and how it might. to improve.
For many Nashvillians, any episode of heavy rains awakens memories of the historic and devastating flood of 2010, and this catastrophic event has sparked various disaster mitigation measures today. According to Metro Water Services, the city has purchased more than 400 homes in flood-prone areas as part of its home buyback program and has demolished most of them, creating more than 200 acres of open space. The 2010 flood also led to the creation of a tool called SAFE (Situational Awareness for Flood Events) in partnership with the US Army Corps of Engineers, the National Weather Service and other agencies. Using information from a variety of sources, SAFE helps city authorities predict the severity of floods. Metro Water currently has 22 river gauges providing data to SAFE, with 24 additional sensors planned. The city’s two water plants have also been upgraded with “new power supply systems and emergency power generation facilities that allow them to operate indefinitely without a public power supply,” according to the department.
But some progress in disaster preparedness has been set back in recent years. In 2016, then-mayor Megan Barry created the Resilience Office within the Mayor’s Office in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities. The office, according to an announcement at the time, was intended to “lead city-wide efforts to help Nashville prepare for, withstand and bounce back from” shocks “- catastrophic events like flooding, tornadoes and fires – and ‘stresses’ – slow disasters like unemployment, affordable housing, poverty and inequality – which are increasingly a part of 21st century life. But after the restructuring of the mayor’s office by Mayor David Briley, the resilience office was cut in 2019.
City officials at the time said the office’s work would continue in other ways, but city council member Freddie O’Connell – who represents much of the city’s downtown core – considered it as a promising vehicle for dealing with probable future crises. For example, the office worked with Metro Water to create an in-depth flood mitigation analysis for each municipal district.
Recent disasters – caused by nature or inflicted by a disturbed man – have highlighted areas where Nashville is vulnerable. Like Servais, O’Connell emphasizes the challenge of sheltering and helping displaced residents. Beyond that, the tornado – which killed two Nashvillians and could have done a lot more in the city given its terrifying path through residential neighborhoods – highlighted the risk of traditional power lines above ground. Burying those lines would be a serious endeavor, but would have clear benefits even if it were only done in the urban core, O’Connell says. The Christmas Day bombing cut telecommunications across the region, which O’Connell said underscores the need to consider creating redundancies in the city’s emergency communications system so that ‘he will not be disturbed at such an event in the future.
âThe idea of ââresilience is not just the capacities you need to respond to a crisis,â says O’Connell. “Sometimes it does the strategic upstream work to mitigate the impact of the crisis.”