DAVIDSON COUNTY, TN – Wimpole Drive, a street that stretches along Mill Creek in southeast Nashville, Tennesee, is tailor-made for the property acquisition option of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA’s) Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP). Because Wimpole Drive experiences repetitive flooding, residents are in harm’s way and financial costs are significant.
As early as 2000, concerned residents along Wimpole Drive began contacting city officials at Metro Water Services about the flooding. Metro contacted FEMA through the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) to develop a voluntary buyout plan to purchase properties in the flood-prone areas, but it would be 3 years before the program would be implemented.
Mill Creek flows through one of the fastest-growing areas of central Tennessee. This 108-square-mile watershed drains about 13 percent of Davidson and Williamson Counties. The creek is flood-prone year round, primarily in winter and early spring, putting homes along Wimpole Drive under water.
In May 1979, a thunderstorm ravaged the area with torrential downpours, causing Mill Creek to rise to 23 feet, or 9 feet above flood stage. Homeowner Vera Williams recalled that most of the homes along Wimpole Drive, including hers, suffered water damage.
“The experience was very hard, very hurtful and very stressful,” she said.
Only 4 months later, the area flooded again when Hurricane Frederic, a Category 4 storm, dumped more than 6 1/2 inches of rain on Nashville and caused another round of major water damage. Although the property buyout program was not yet in place, Williams had already turned to FEMA for help in being better prepared for this disaster.
“First we contacted our homeowners’ insurance agency to file a claim,” Williams said. “They told us we need to get flood insurance.”
Apparently, many people are unaware that homeowners insurance does not cover flood damages. FEMA administers the National Flood Insurance Program, which works with private insurers to offer flood coverage to property owners and renters in participating communities.
To move residents out of the danger zone, in 2003, TEMA initially proposed buying 20 homes on Wimpole Drive using HMGP funding. Many residents, including Sharon Lord, immediately responded to the voluntary program and sold their houses.
“The area flooded all the time,” Lord said. “I am glad I sold my home when I did.”
Other property owners who sold their houses were also glad they did. Had their houses faced the flood waters of Mill Creek in 2010, FEMA engineers estimate damage would have been as high as 80 percent per property, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
For property owners, like Vera Williams, who were still hanging on to their houses, the worst came in early May 2010. More than 13 inches of rain fell over a 2-day period, submerging parts of Nashville in the area’s worst flood in more than 70 years. Mill Creek crested at a record of more than 12 feet above flood stage, with high-water marks along Wimpole Drive at 9 feet and above. This time, Williams’ house was substantially damaged.
“Water washed the interior wall away in the kitchen and the floor was ruined,” she said. “Even the bricks on the back of the house were washed away!” She considers it lucky that the house was a rental property and that she had no tenants at the time. Other homeowners still there also saw their properties ruined by water damage. “They lost everything,” Williams said.
Williams has since received another letter from FEMA requesting her participation in the buyout program, and this time she’s ready to sell.
Once the remaining homeowners also agree to take part in the buyout program, the houses will be demolished and the properties turned over to the parks department, allowing the area to be made into a greenway. Stan Robinson, administrative officer of Metro Water Services, is optimistic that, in time, the community will fully participate. Robinson believes developing the properties into a greenway would be a natural transition since the community has already been using the area as a soccer park.
Getting residents out of harm’s way, minimizing recovery costs and expanding public recreation are the key components of hazard mitigation.
“Hazard mitigation is not a disaster-relief program,” Robinson said. “It is a program to reduce risk and improve communities.”