Janey Camp Contributes to Tennessean Article on the 10th Anniversary of the 2010 Floods
“I think the general public doesn’t really understand that not all dams are created equally,” said Janey Camp, a Vanderbilt University civil and environmental engineer who analyzes flood risks for communities and infrastructure. “Some are for flood mitigation and storage of water, and others are for hydro power or navigation. Not all are intended to do the same thing.“I think there was a public misunderstanding of why you would need to release water, but that dam wasn’t made to handle water at the level it was being asked to hold back.”
The full article can be viewed here:
2010 Nashville flood: Should the Army Corps of Engineers have been a scapegoat?
A decade ago, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper had harsh words for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and its response to the historic flood that devastated Nashville and Middle Tennessee.
“I think I said at the time I had seen Boy Scout troops that were better prepared,” Cooper said in an interview. “Now (with a) more balanced view, Mother Nature was mainly at fault.”
The Corps has acknowledged communication deficiencies exposed in the 2010 flood, specifically with the National Weather Service, that made for problems with flood crest forecasts.
But limitations on dam infrastructure in the 2010 flood, an internet outage and 13.57 inches of rain in Nashville and more than 17 inches in other areas that fell over two days were big factors as Corps water managers stood on top of dams and waited until water levels were 6 inches below the top of the gates before opening them to release water.
“One area where we have taken great steps to improve is with our external communication,” said Anthony Rodino, the Corps of Engineers Nashville District Water Management Section chief. “We have increased levels of communication with federal, state and local partners to better disseminate information before, during (and) after high water events in the Cumberland River Basin.”
Devastation in Nashville:10 things to know about the 2010 flood
Those steps include:
- An instant messaging system between agencies called NWSChat used to share critical warning decision expertise and other types of significant weather information.
- Installation of automated spillway gate monitoring satellite equipment that provides near real-time information to the weather service on dam spillway gate openings. The National Weather Service can access the information for forecasting purposes, especially during communication interruptions, which occurred in the 2010 flood when all inbound and outbound network communications were severed.
- Improved models that can utilize precipitation forecasts to further aid in water management decisions.
- Development of a Water Management 24/7 Operating Plan to trigger needs for more staffing, communication and coordination.
- Participation in the Cooperative Streamgaging Program with the U.S. Geological Survey to maintain streamgages through the area.
The upgrades are effective, according to hydrologist James LaRosa of the National Weather Service’s Nashville office, which has upgraded communication with its own regional offices as well. The weather service notifies the public of potential flood watches and warnings.
“Our flood modeling and monitoring is much improved from 10 years ago, so people know what the risk is and what they need to do,” LaRosa said. “Technology is better also.”
Cooper wants additional infrastructure upgrades with the communication enhancements.
“The man-made mitigation measures were not what they should be,” Cooper said. The communication improvements “sound good, but all that matters is what happens in a flood.”
The congressman is moving forward to try and change a federal law established in 1946 that would add flood risk reduction to the purposes for the Old Hickory and Cordell Hull dams in Carthage, both on the Cumberland River.
Neither dam was made for downstream flood reduction and is a reason why Cooper believes the Corps operates with “a straitjacket” in major flood events. Some dams are built to aid river navigation and electricity generation, and that’s their primary role.
Old Hickory Dam had water 6 inches from the top in the 2010 flood before the water was released, which the Corps was initially challenged on.
But Cooper said flooding would have been considerably more “disastrous” for other areas if that water hadn’t been released.
“I think the general public doesn’t really understand that not all dams are created equally,” said Janey Camp, a Vanderbilt University civil and environmental engineer who analyzes flood risks for communities and infrastructure. “Some are for flood mitigation and storage of water, and others are for hydro power or navigation. Not all are intended to do the same thing.
“I think there was a public misunderstanding of why you would need to release water, but that dam wasn’t made to handle water at the level it was being asked to hold back.”
Cooper has also long wanted to utilize some of the area’s existing rock quarries as emergency lakes for further flood protection.
Middle Tennessee got a test in February 2019 with 13.47 inches of rainfall that month.
“This widespread, long duration type of event is much more in line with the ability of the Cumberland River Basin projects to provide flood risk mitigation rather than a more localized, short duration, high intensity event,” said Doug DeLong, Metro Center Levee Project manager.
Repairs completed in 2013 to the Wolf Creek Dam in Kentucky helped keep water from rushing downstream and potentially causing devastating flooding in areas of Middle Tennessee.
At one point, the dam was among the nation’s six most at risk for failure, and the Corps of Engineers spent nearly $600 million on repairs. Although the dam is more than 100 miles upstream of Nashville, a breach there could have meant flooding so severe it would have surpassed the historic 2010 flood.
The maximum elevation at which the dam can hold water is 750 feet. If it failed at that level, the Corps estimated in 2013 that flood stage in Nashville would hit 78 feet, far higher than the 52 feet reached in 2010.
In February 2019, Kentucky’s Lake Cumberland, which the Wolf Creek Dam creates, was at record levels, a big test for the repaired dam. The Corps did have to release up to 60,000 cubic feet of water per second from the Wolf Creek Dam at one point that month, prompting some flooding along the Cumberland River in low-lying areas downstream.
Reach Andy Humbles at email@example.com or 615-726-5939 and on Twitter @AndyHumbles.