After Devastating Storms, Tennessee Coalition Calls for State Policy to Address Pervasive Flooding

Local leaders promote resilience planning and urge governor to follow neighboring states’ lead

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After Devastating Storms, Tennessee Coalition Calls for State Policy to Address Pervasive Flooding
A trailer and car were swept up by flash flooding recently, shown Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, in Waverly, Tenn.
A trailer and car are among the debris swept up by flash flooding in August in Waverly, Tennessee, that killed up to 20 people and washed away homes and rural roads.
The Associated Press

Editor’s note: This article was updated on October 12, 2021, to reflect that the statistic on nearly 3,000 floods in Tennessee from 2000 to 2020 is based on information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Events Database and includes flash floods and longer-duration events.

In late August 2021, the floodwaters that hit Waverly, Tennessee, arrived so fast that some residents didn’t have time to flee, trapped in their homes and cars as a wall of water blitzed this small town. The flooding, which caused up to 20 deaths, was driven by 17 inches of rain in one day, destroying homes, businesses, and lives. Just weeks later, remnants of Hurricane Ida swept over much of the same middle Tennessee region, bringing another round of flash flooding.

An outpouring of support and resources has flowed to Waverly and other communities as they work to recover, but flooding is neither new in Tennessee nor unique to these towns. Just earlier this year, the Nashville area experienced extensive flash flooding—following more than 5 inches of rain—that killed four people and caused nearly $24 million in damage.

On average, flooding costs Tennessee taxpayers $243 million each year, according to a 2020 report from the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR). And from 2000 to 2020, the state was struck by almost 3,000 floods and flash floods according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Storm Events Database. That’s more than one flood every three days, on average.

As Tennessee faces more frequent and intense storms, a group of mayors, emergency managers, and home and small-business owners have joined to form Flood Ready Tennessee. The coalition is calling on Governor Bill Lee (R) and other policymakers to commit to state-level resilience planning, technical assistance for local governments, and investment in flood mitigation projects.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) walks past a home swept off its foundation in catastrophic floods August 22, 2021 in Waverly, Tennessee.
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee (right) was on the ground in August to assess the catastrophic flooding damage including at this site, where a home was swept off its foundation.
Getty Images

Empowering communities

Some of Tennessee’s cities, including Nashville and Chattanooga, are leading the way in innovative stormwater solutions and resilience planning. But all communities—large and small, urban and rural— would benefit from state guidance and regional coordination among neighboring towns to address flooding.

As Warren Nevad, executive director of Tennessee Renewable Energy & Economic Development Council (TREEDC) and a member of Flood Ready Tennessee, explained, “Our mayors are eager to solve the flooding problems facing their communities. Funding and technical expertise are out of reach for many of them.”

Dyersburg Mayor John Holden, also a member of Flood Ready Tennessee, touched on this in a recent interview with Pew. Although Dyersburg has found creative approaches to address flooding, he shared that small towns have limited staff and expertise related to flood risk planning and mitigation. Holden emphasized the need for state and regional collaboration to address flooding challenges, especially in low-income and rural areas that are susceptible to repeat flooding.

Coordination between communities along the same rivers and within the same watersheds can help communities leverage share resources and is also critical because, as Holden noted, “The water doesn’t care if you’re inside or outside the city limits. It just cares where downhill is.”

Models for state leadership

Flood Ready Tennessee is encouraging Gov. Lee and other state lawmakers to follow the lead of other Southern states, such as South Carolina and Florida, in proactively addressing flooding. A core element of these statewide initiatives is a resilience plan that assesses flood risks and identifies strategies to prepare for and address the likelihood and severity of those threats. Guided by a resilience plan, states can establish programs to support local planning and set up dedicated funding for local and regional mitigation projects.

For instance, in 2020, South Carolina created an Office of Resilience that committed to developing a statewide resilience plan and established a revolving fund to provide communities with low-interest loans to support flood mitigation projects. Last spring, the Florida Legislature passed a bill committing to a comprehensive statewide flood vulnerability assessment and a resilience planning process, and set up the Resilient Florida Grant Program to provide planning and project funding to local governments. To support this suite of initiatives, the state also used $500 million from its portion of American Rescue Plan funds to create a Resilient Florida Trust Fund.

A Nashville, Tennessee, neighborhood improvement project uses plantings along a trail to capture, store, and treat stormwater runoff from nearby roads
A Nashville, Tennessee, neighborhood improvement project uses plantings along a trail to capture, store, and treat stormwater runoff from nearby roads, which can improve water quality and curb flooding. This and other types of green infrastructure are effective resilience strategies that could be deployed statewide.
Bob Schatz

Making Tennessee flood-ready

Flood Ready Tennessee’s growing membership highlights communities’ need for state guidance and resources to keep citizens safe, lower disaster costs, and prevent road closures and disruption of critical services. Tennessee should look to its neighbors in the Southeast for innovative approaches to address these pressing needs.

Yaron Miller is an officer and Kristiane Huber is a principal associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ flood-prepared communities project.