When I heard the buzz, I steered a little to the left and then straightened out. Attempting to lighten the mood, I shouted to my wife, “I’m either driving blind or steering by ear!” I had to shout as the roar of the downpour made it nearly impossible to hear anything. “What difference does it make? I can’t see anything!” she shouted back. While looking in her direction for an uncomfortably long time, I finally said, “I can’t see anything either.” I know that this is unsafe driving, but when you can’t see anyway, why not? Throttling back to 25 mph., I nervously pressed the flashing emergency lights on the dash. I could barely make out some cars pulling off onto the shoulder of the road. For a moment, I thought of doing the same. But so often in situations like this oncoming traffic mistake parked cars for the driving lane and just plow into the back of them. I opted to drive on. And so it went for an hour. Throughout it all a local radio station was giving a moment-by-moment report on the flood. The D.J.’s tone was that of an announcer at the Indianapolis 500, clearly wanting to add excitement to the story. I didn’t need the excitement. But I did need the real-time info.
My wife yelled over the din of the storm, “I guess we are not going to shop at Opry Mills Mall today?” When you really like to shop ... you really do. The deluge of the century is a mere trifle. “This just in!” screamed the D.J. “Six feet of water at the Opryland Hotel! Guests being evacuated to local schools! Over 2,000 rooms heavily damaged!” “Sweetie. I’m afraid it’s a scratch on the shopping trip,” I deadpanned. As I continued our white-knuckled drive, I half thought, “Please don’t let us drown on the interstate.” Pausing at the absurdity of the thought, I directed my eyes heavenward and thought, “You know what I mean.” And just then the rain slackened to a torrential downpour. Suffering is relative. For the first time, I could actually see a hundred yards, just in time to spy giant traffic cones arrayed across the highway and a patrolman directing us onto an exit ramp. We were forced onto I-40. Same thing: Traffic cones, police cars; the end of the line. But this time, we were stalled behind a long line of semi’. The old adage, “If the creek don’t rise,” was a foregone conclusion. The creek had risen and was threatening to kill us all. If we got blocked in on all four sides?
Whipping into the left lane, I took I-24 west toward Memphis. “But we don’t want to go to Memphis.” “I know, honey, but we can’t get locked in with rising water.” After a few miles, we were stopped by police again and directed off the interstate. Taking State Rt. 70, we were again blocked, but this time, not by police, but by high water streaming across the road. I know a bit about the Bible, and I was sure this was not hell, but it was high water … and a lot of it in downtown Nashville. Moments later I found myself driving through a residential neighborhood, absolutely clueless to our location. Spying another blockade, I got out in the rain, and accidentally turned my golf umbrella inside out. An inverted fabric funnel is of no help in situations like this. As I walked through the rain to a patrolman he explained that the situation was in flux, there was a rolling blockade and he couldn’t tell me for certain where to go. A trucker nearby instructed us to take Rt. 440 and get off on West End Avenue. It would take us to the center of town. If this didn’t work, the situation was hopeless. It worked. In a few minutes we drove directly to the hotel. Usually I have to call the hotel and ask how to get there. But this time, in an ironic twist, the concierge asked, “How did you get here?”
True to my literal bent, I replied, “By car.”
Once in our hotel room, the local TV channel, (appropriately called “Ustream,”) broadcast incredible pictures. An inflatable air mattress was being used by emergency personnel to evacuate folks from an apartment complex. Trying to remain upbeat, I quipped, “If that’s a water bed, I don’t want one.” It’s amazing what a simple roll of the eyes can communicate, especially when it comes from your spouse. Timing is everything. Getting serious again, I watched an amphibious “duck” boat, one that usually plies the Cumberland River giving tours of Nashville, was now plying the waters through Nashville rescuing persons marooned in their homes. And a bit later, as we tried to access e-mail from the hotel computers, a man talked to his wife overseas on the cell while viewing satellite pictures of his flooded home. With his small daughter at his side, we overheard him say, “It’s bad, baby; it’s really bad.” It was heart wrenching to hear the pathos in his voice. In the main thought, the overall mood of the people was nothing like Katrina. The people were calm and at times, even light-hearted and joking, even though some had lost everything.
That night as we entered into the restaurant, the host explained the menu was limited because the food supply truck could not get through. If he had not mentioned it, we would not have noticed. The selection was impressive, the quality was perfect and the service was regal. It was as if everyone was saying, “We are stronger than this.” The next day dawned bright and clear; a total contrast to what had occurred the day before. Again, in a counterintuitive way, the water got higher after the rains had stopped. Hundreds of people walked down to the River Park area to get the photos of a lifetime. Not to be denied, we too decided to make a “walking tour” of our own. We strolled through a nearly empty Capitol building, sparsely peopled because the workers couldn’t get through. I thought, “If in a crisis you need leaders to lead but the leaders aren’t present because of the crisis…?” Now I’m confusing myself. Moving on.
From there we followed the crowds down to the foot of 2nd Street, again to be short-stopped by police. Ribbons of yellow tape prevented us from getting closer to the water. However, the next block over was clear and we could walk down the street until it literally disappeared beneath the muddy swirling waters of the Cumberland River. Just then a man stepped out of his shop in neoprene-chest waders, looked at me helplessly and said, “I can’t get out of my waders!” I told him I would give him a hand as I motioned to my wife to snap pictures. I have pulled off a few cowboy boots in my time, but this was a first for me. I then asked if I could walk through his store and get a shot of the riverside of the street. “Why don’t you take the stairs!” he quipped. As I walked to the head of stairs descending to the lower level, they too disappeared into a swirling mass of brown water. All types of brand new shoes were floating around. “You don’t need to go to the Cumberland ... the Cumberland has come to you and brought all of my merchandise with it!” Again, all of this with a smile on his face. Sometimes you need to laugh to keep from crying.
That night, the opening banquet of the conference came off without a hitch and everyone seemed especially grateful for the bounty set before us. We said prayers for those who were suffering in the flood and this group no doubt had the heart to help in the days to come. As we packed up to leave Nashville the next morning, I mused on the events of the last 24 hours. We had set off from Cleveland on an “adventure trip” to the state’s Capitol. We had indeed experienced an adventure … and then some.