Since much of Tennessee's 42,146 square miles sits on plains amidst a spider web of rivers, lakes, and countless streams, it's no wonder flooding has been a difficulty for the state and its residents. Recent flood-events, most notably in 2010, have caused immense destruction and hardship for Tennesseans, but flooding was an even worse problem prior to the introduction of a series of dams and reservoirs built in the region by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The TVA came into being in 1933 via the Tennessee Valley Authority Act signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Its focus was not only on flood control, but was also designed to address other issues such as the generation of electricity, the manufacturing of fertilizer, and economic development.
By the 1930s, much of the Tennessee Valley land had been farmed well beyond its ability to sustain crop growth. While this might not seem connected to floods, with the depletion of soil healthy enough to grow crops, flooding served to further erode the soil. This hampered farmers' abilities to not only grow crops, but also to continue to make a living doing so. With the encroachment of more cities and towns along the rivers as many left farming and life in rural areas, flooding became even more problematic.
Major Tennessee Rivers: Clinch, Cumberland, Duck, Mississippi, Tennessee
Major Tennessee Lakes: Cherokee, Chickamauga, Kentucky, Norris, Tims Ford Reservoir
According to the Tennessee State Library and Archives, major floods in Tennessee have occurred in 1847, 1902, 1927, 1937, 1948, and 1951. Flood events have happened more recently in 2010 and 2012, and, as with the floods preceding them, they brought with them destruction, death, and exorbitant costs in lost lives, property damage, and recovery.
A Few Major Floods in Tennessee
1902: The Great Flood of Good Friday
Among the hardest hit was Warren County, Tennessee, which includes the cities of Centertown, McMinnville, Morrison, and Viola. 11 inches of rain soaked the area in 24 hours over 2 days, Thursday, March 27, and (Good) Friday, March 28. 11 people died, and of the 32 existing water-driven mills, which included cotton mills, sawmills, and grist mills, fewer than 12 were left standing.
1912: The Memphis Flood
Due to Mississippi River flooding in Cairo, IL, the 34-foot flood stage of the Mississippi River in Memphis was surpassed on March 24 and remained flooded for 60 days. 700-1,200 people were forced to evacuate their homes. More than 700 homes and 25 manufacturing plants were submerged during the flood's highest stages.
1912: Nashville Reservoir Rupture
Just after midnight on November 5, the Nashville Reservoir was breached, unleashing more than 25 million gallons of water into the city. Many residents were awakened by water crashing into their bedrooms; beds served one family as makeshift rafts when the waters carried them, beds and all, out into the street. There was widespread property damage including total and partial losses of homes and businesses. Surprisingly, there was no loss of life.
1927: The Great Flood
he Great Flood of 1927 was preceded by severe precipitation in December of 1926, with rainfall measuring 10.38 inches. The Cumberland River overflowed on January 1 at 16.2 feet above flood level to reach a height of 56.2 feet. 2 deaths were reported, 10,400 people were rendered destitute, their homes having been destroyed, and the cost to businesses reached into the millions.
May 2010 - The 1000-year Flood
In May 2010, Tennessee, in addition to parts of Arkansas, Kentucky, and Mississippi, experienced 1000-year floods. In Nashville, the Cumberland River reached heights of 51.86 feet due to 2 days of severe rain. In addition to the Cumberland River, record flood levels were seen for the Buffalo, Duck, Harpeth, and Red rivers. For its part, Tennessee saw 21 deaths, federal declarations of major disaster areas for at least 30 counties, and severe devastation in Hickman, Montgomery, and Davidson counties.
Many tourist attractions in Nashville were affected, including the much-loved Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, along with countless other businesses and homes. While damage to tourist attractions isn't on par with the loss of life, they do play an important part for Nashville in that they provide much-needed jobs and bring money into the community.
Nashville damage estimates, which do not include damaged transportation infrastructure, public buildings, or content inside damaged buildings and homes, reached $1.5 billion.
The Most Flood-Prone City in Tennessee
The TVA asserts that Chattanooga is the most flood-prone city of Tennessee because of its location. It is positioned on a plain at the intersection of eastern and western Tennessee near where the Tennessee River snakes through the Cumberland Mountains.
Prior to the late 1930s when the TVA built the Chickamauga Dam, the Tennessee River would see a rapid rise in water levels whenever there were storms with substantial rainfall. When the river flow reached Chattanooga, the narrow canyon that sits beneath Chattanooga would be unable to channel the excess water which would then be forced back toward Chattanooga resulting in flooding. It is estimated that the Chickamauga Dam has prevented approximately $4.9 billion in damages to Chattanooga.
Don't Get Caught Unprepared!
Because Tennessee saw 6 major floods in just over 100 years from 1847 to 1951, and has experienced many since, efforts have been taken to stem some of the flood danger. These efforts don't mean that flooding won't happen. Water is one of Tennessee's most abundant resources, and when the weather helps provide too much of a good thing, the cost to repair flood damage can be expensive. Add to that any indirect costs such as temporary living spaces and business premises, and lost revenue that can accrue, the financial burden can grow immensely.
It is often said that the best defense is a good offense, and preparing for potential flood-events is no different.