Just as in our national history, the question of personal safety has arisen many times in Nashville. For at least fifteen years after our 1780 founding, not a man, woman, or child was safe. Indians devised surprise attacks again and again on the encroaching settlers, and many lives were lost – some, like Jonathan Jennings, through horrific means.
Never has there been a Nashville panic like that of February 1862. After Fort Donelson fell on February 16, it became clear that Union troops would occupy Nashville. Many Nashville secessionists quickly scattered to the winds, while others, determined to remain, hunkered down in fearful anticipation of the arrival of the invading army.
Soon afterwards, as if the Civil War had not brought enough agony, one of several vicious cholera epidemics claimed as many as 800 Nashville lives in the summer of 1866. Seven years later, in 1873, nearly 750 Nashvillians perished in another outbreak of the terrible disease.
By the end of the day on March 22, 1916, about thirty-two square blocks of East Nashville had become a wasteland. A particularly voracious fire, driven by high winds, had devoured nearly 700 buildings and homes. Not many years later, on March 14, 1933, another unwelcome guest—a savage tornado—roared through East Nashville threatening again the very foundations of the community.
During the 1960s Nashville was a highly visible stage for the Civil Rights Movement. At times it looked as though our city might self-destruct out of racial tension. Neither whites nor blacks felt safe as the pressures created by mandated integration resulted in legal battles, demonstrations, sit-ins, and riots.
Nashville was left largely to its own devices during the destructive flood of May 2010, when it received more than 13 inches of rain in two days. The fast-rising water displaced 10,000 residents, produced $2.3 billion in property damage, and caused a number of deaths. Receiving little help from outside, neighbors helped neighbors, and volunteers turned out by the hundreds to help with clean-up efforts.
Late on March 2, 2020, a category-EF3 tornado roared through Nashville and into Mt. Juliet along nearly the same path as the 1933 storm, causing five deaths, over 200 serious injuries, and $1.5 billion in property damage, including a disproportionate number of churches and school buildings. The Covid-19 pandemic had just begun to affect the health of the community as tornado clean-up got underway, and the remainder of the year was consumed by efforts to sustain schools, businesses, and healthcare facilities during a time of unprecedented illness and hardship. And then, just as new vaccines brought hope, the Christmas morning bomb blast on 2nd Avenue downtown shattered our peace once again.
Yet somehow, through these and other perilous times, Nashville has survived, and even thrived. We have always been an industrious lot, constructing landmark public buildings, universities, churches, libraries, businesses, and homes. More important, we have strengthened our collective character and have raised our children to become leaders in business, education, law, politics, medicine, and music. We have produced artists and poets, authors and publishers, factory technicians and practical nurses. We, along with our nation, have become a diversified and enriched society that must continue to mature. We have proudly earned our motto, “Nashville Strong!”
Trembling and panting with exertion, I leaned against the front door of my 1955 cottage on Richland Creek; it was 9:15 a.m. on Sunday, May 2, 2010. This was the second day of Richland’s flooding rampage. Saturday’s flood had been a “normal” backyard event for this riparian landowner – aware that the additional water and waterborne algae enrich the soil supporting trees, shrubs, and plants in my bird garden – and the water had crested at 5:10 p.m., then receded into the usually peaceful creek. Now, however, our water-saturated earth and unremitting deluge of rain were ominous harbingers of a disastrous second flood. Thus, I had begun an hour earlier to hastily gather essentials I would need after my exodus from the cottage, and I presently resembled an overloaded pack mule. Both my arms were laden with bulging plastic sacks containing essential vitamins/medicine/toiletries, my address book with listings of family/friends, my pocketbook with billfold/identification/credit cards, and the vital red-metal lockbox protecting family documents for myself and two grown sons. As survival instinct frantically pumped adrenalin throughout my five-foot body, my inner voice urged, “Brace yourself, woman, and GET OUT!”
With my right hand on the doorknob, I reluctantly took one last look at my long-treasured collection of Tennessee and Southern books arranged in the six bookcases lining the walls of the living room. “Pleeease don’t take my beloved books, ” I desperately prayed aloud, hoping sympathetic guardian angels lurked nearby to perform a miracle of epic proportions, but that ludicrous prayer evaporated when I pulled open the heavy wooden door. Torrential rain, near-gale-force wind, and a rapidly rising surge of foul yellow-brown flood water assaulted my senses and body, pushing me several steps backward. Given access to the cottage’s interior, roiling water rushed over the doorway’s threshold and across the gleaming oak flooring. I instantly realized there would be no coming back to save any other possessions. In fact, I would be extremely blessed if I managed to save myself.
Clutching an umbrella to shield my head, I hesitantly stepped onto the front porch, feeling the shock of cold water as my feet, ankles, and calves disappeared into it. My left hand grabbed the wrought-iron railing as my loafer-clad feet gingerly groped for the two steps down to the sidewalk. Once on that flat surface, I blindly pushed myself forward through the water and heavy rainfall. My exploring feet “recognized” familiar objects beneath the water: stepping stones, stones outlining the English cottage garden, and — ouch! — sharp shards of my smashed pottery planter.
I had progressed five or six feet into the yard, determined to reach my car, when the turbulent current threatened to throw me off my feet. I summoned extra strength and leaned forward into the wind and current to keep moving, as I squinted through the surrounding monsoon to see my maroon Saturn parked near the mailbox at the road. Eureka! But water had already risen to the bottom of the car’s windows — my Lizzie VI was doomed and could not offer escape. Muttering several X-rated curse words, I shifted my bobbing cargo as I struggled to keep my footing and turned toward the indiscernible road. I was now in the center of the swift, white-capped current and losing momentum to move forward.
“Hey, can I help you?” yelled a male voice through the hammering rain.
Startled by the sound, I peered from under the umbrella and saw a young man plunging into the current toward me with outstretched hand.
“Yes! Yes!” I yelped, flapping my encumbered right arm toward his hand. “Hurry, please hurry!”
After an eternity of a few minutes, the young man reached me and caught my right arm to drag me from the savage current, which was apparently intent upon sweeping me to the dead-end of the road and down over Richland Creek’s banks (where two persons would be drowned later that day). As my rescuer and I struggled onto the road’s pavement, he pulled the sacks off my right arm and took the red-metal lockbox to ease my load, then somehow he propelled us through the rib-high flood water to the hillside on the west side of Meadowcrest Lane. As we doggedly slogged up the water-logged hillock, young neighbor Greg Chapman met us and helped me to his cottage, where we collapsed into drenched heaps on his front-porch steps. We sat coughing, sputtering, and gasping for air as we silently surveyed the carnage around us.
As I began to shiver in my sodden clothing, I said breathlessly to my rescuer, “I’ve seen you many times coming to and going from your cottage at the end of the street, but I don’t know your name. Who are you?”
The dark-haired, bearded fellow grinned, “Your neighbor. I’m Stephen Selby.”
I gratefully returned his smile and introduced myself, then shook his strong right hand. “Thank you, Stephen Selby, for saving my life! Both my sons were water-blocked and couldn’t get here to help me out of my cottage . . . you certainly are my guardian angel this morning.”
He modestly declined any praise as he returned to the storm to join other volunteer rescuers. Greg Chapman helped me up the rain-slick steps into his home, where several other drenched neighbors had taken refuge. One of his roommates gave me dry sweat-pants and shirt to replace my soaked slacks and shirt. When I returned to the living room, a group of young men stood by the porch steps in the rain talking to Greg and Stephen; they were dividing into pairs to check the other four homes on lower Meadowcrest and rescue anyone trapped inside. I stood on the porch, watching the men struggle through the murky water. Biting my lower lip to hold back tears, I whispered, “How brave and caring they are.”
As the men moved down the submerged road, another group of fellows came from the upper end of Meadowcrest, wading through the rain and flood water toward me. One tall young man offered haven in his cottage on the high ground of Oakmont Circle to everyone in our group of refugees, and I eagerly accepted. The higher I could position myself, the sooner one of my sons could get to me. Thus my second guardian angel, Jeff Recker, and I gathered my plastic sacks, umbrella, and red-metal lockbox to push ourselves uphill ahead of the pursuing flood to his parked truck. As we traveled the two blocks south to his cottage, he chuckled, “You don’t remember me, but I came to your door and tried to buy your house a few years ago. Now I’m glad you wouldn’t sell it to me!”
I was astonished and laughed as I exclaimed, “That was YOU?! Well, I’m glad you decided to buy another cottage in Richland Meadows . . . otherwise, you wouldn’t have been here this morning.”
Upon reaching Jeff’s cottage, we were met at the door by his roommate, Brett Bergstrom, a young guitarist recently transplanted to Nashville. For the second time, I was offered dry sweat-pants and shirt to replace my wet clothing. After I was dry and warm, Brett whipped up a late breakfast of fried bologna, buttered toast, and scrambled eggs — absolutely the most delicious, most appreciated meal I have ever eaten!
After breakfast, Jeff attached his outboard motor boat to his truck and left us to continue his volunteer efforts for flood victims, while Brett answered the telephone and relayed messages to fellow volunteers. During the long afternoon, while hard rainfall relentlessly drummed on the roof, Brett strummed his guitar while composing music and lyrics to commemorate the Great Flood of 2010: “Ilene’s Song.” I was deeply moved by his sensitive compassion for this flood refugee and very honored by his plaintive song of survival.
When my younger son came to retrieve me around 4:00 p.m., we drove to my Meadowcrest cottage to take post-flood photographs. Later, traveling the two miles west to his home, we were silently absorbed in our own thoughts. I was sated with profound gratitude for my neighbors’ kindnesses as I mulled over the day’s benevolent events. And I repeatedly chastised myself: How could I have worried selfishly about losing books this morning when such a massive catastrophe as Richland Creek’s rampage was overwhelming all the lower creek-side neighbors?
The sought-after answer suddenly flashed through my brain: Life-saving assistance from my previously unknown neighbors was the appropriate response of any lurking-nearby guardian angels to my prayer for a miracle of epic proportions. They had, indeed, been there — ready and willing to help — but I had lost focus on what I needed most. Thank goodness, guardian angels never lose focus and provide what’s best for us, not what we think we want.
This personal story of survival on May 2 is but one of the myriad miracles affecting the lives of thousands upon thousands of uprooted victims of the Great Flood of 2010 in Nashville and environs.