Columnists Chuck Koehler The Retailer’s Perspective: Water, water everywhere - but not a drop to drink

The Retailer’s Perspective: Water, water everywhere - but not a drop to drink

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On May 1st, 2nd, and 3rd of 2010, Nashville, TN experienced what is known in emergency response circles as an MCI - a Major Catastrophic Incident.  We fell victim to the worst flooding in the US in years.  In a 48 hour period, middle Tennessee received the greatest amount of rainfall in recorded history and everything flooded.  I now know what Noah must have gone through.  So, I thought I’d share a ‘feel good’ story or two (or three) with everyone.

To set the scene, I’m a 10 year veteran officer with Metro Nashville Office of Emergency Management and I was in uniform with a badge and a radio so I was what we call a ‘uniformed officer’.  My day went something like this...

On Monday the 3rd, the rain had finally stopped and the sun came out.  I checked in for service at 5:45 am.  My first call of the day was for a family trapped on top of a mini van in the Opry Mills Shopping Center parking lot and their car was drifting.  Yikes!  While en-route, we got word that they had made it to safety so I was diverted to check on and evacuate (if needed) a nursing home/retirement village that had been cut-off for two days from all services.  I remembered on my way to the call, running with full lights and sirens, that my column was due that morning and I had to call my editor and tell him I was kind of busy at the moment and I’d be a little late.  He understood.

All access to this neighborhood had been cut off and the only way in or out was by boat.  I backed my boat into the water in the middle of a normally busy road and went to see what was on the other side.  The ‘other side’ was about a half mile away and out of sight of the launch point.  We were boating on a major road trying to use the telephone poles to find our way.  An interstate highway runs beside this road and it was under water and shut down as well so we just winged it and finally made our way to the other side.

When we got there, we found about 50-75 people standing at the waters edge waiting to be evacuated.  My boat could carry maybe 4.  Fortunately, about 10 or more boats that civilians had brought out were doing most of the shuttle work so I went to check on the nursing home.  Their backup generators were functioning fine and for the most part everyone was in a pretty good mood so I got re-assigned to do ‘knock-and-talk’s’ in the neighborhood, which are basically to knock on a door and check on the condition of the homeowner.

Aside from the retirement village, there are probably 2-3,000 other homes and families in this area.  Since all cell towers were down, all electricity and phones were out, and there was no other access, worried family members would show up at the command center (on the dry side) inquiring about a family member.  Command would radio me the address and name of the person and I’d go check on them.  The average call was someone’s 80 year old mother or father who hadn’t been heard from in two or more days.  I was lucky and found everyone I was looking for and they were all fine.  I kept wondering when my luck was going to run out.

A woman hadn’t heard from her brother in 3 days who had been staying at her house while she attended the Kentucky Derby.  I approached the address which was in a different subdivision and knocked on the door.  I’m assuming I’m looking for an elderly gentlemen since that was what I’d been doing all morning. I knocked and didn’t get an answer so I walked around the house and looked in the windows and came upon a 20 something young man out sunbathing with his ipod in his ears and rocking to the beat.  I walked around him and started banging on a side door and he sits up and said that this was his house.  I asked him what his name was and then radioed back to command to ask again who I was looking for.  He hears his name over my radio and said: “Yeah, that’s me.  What’s wrong?  I’m house sitting for my sister.  Is everything okay?”

I radioed in to his sister that he was fine and just working on his tan and living the good life.  His sister, relieved, said she was going to go to the store and asked if they needed anything.  He said:  “Food, Beer, maybe just beer, that ought to do it.”  I cracked up and went to my next call which was back at the evacuation site at the waters edge.

The call came over the radio that we had a lost little girl.  When I got back to the evacuation point, a policeman who lived in the neighborhood (because he couldn’t get out either) had this scared little girl beside him who had just came over on a boat.  He needed to respond to another call so I took custody of Tiffany.  Remember, this is an MCI and about 100 things were happening at once.

About 2 hours earlier, a bunch of stranded residents, standing at the evacuation site, mentioned that the interstate was only about 15 feet away across a very steep, very flooded, and very muddy ditch.  A couple of the guys asked me if they built a bridge across the ditch, would it be okay for people to just walk over to the interstate and then walk a mile to the next exit and to safety.  I said sure and went to my next call.  They in turn, went to their houses and gathered up lumber and supplies and came back with hammers and saws and built a make-shift bridge across the ditch allowing all of these people to just walk across to the interstate.

I’m watching all of these people make their way to the interstate and stopped them and asked them to hang on just a second.  I called my command and asked for a bus to be brought to that location. About 20 minutes later, a bright yellow school bus shows up and all of the people waiting to leave by a treacherous boat ride just walked a few feet across this make-shift bridge and got on a bus and were whisked away to safety in style. We’ll come back to this operation in a minute because now I’ve still got this little girl in my custody.

Her name was Tiffany and she was 11 years old.  She lived in this neighborhood with her mom and dad and a younger brother and sister.  Her mom had dropped her off at a friend’s house early Saturday afternoon for a skating party.  It’s now about 2:00 on Monday afternoon and she hadn’t been able to contact her family and they hadn’t been able to contact her.  She was really frightened and worried that something bad had happened to them in the flood.  I didn’t know, but I was hoping my luck hadn’t run out yet.

By this point, I’d commandeered a pick up and a driver to run me around so the three of us load up and she gives us directions to her house.  When we pulled up and got out, the front door was open but the full view glass door was closed and locked.  They didn’t have any flood damage that I could see so I knocked on the door and waited.  A few seconds later, two little kids about 5 or 6 came running into the living room and began  jumping and hollering their sister’s name trying to jump through the glass.  The mom came running into the living room and saw her daughter and while opening the door, fell to her knees and started crying and hugging her daughter.  It was a real tear jerker moment.  I asked if everyone was okay and the mother just looked at me and just kept saying thank you, thank you, thank you.  So I did what I always do in a situation like that - I keyed up my radio and said 3115 is clear and headed to my next call which was a report of a house under water and on fire with 5 people trapped on the roof.  Yikes again.

I get to the address and as far as I could tell the house had never been under water or on fire so I knock on the door.  A neighbor sees me and tells me the homeowner and his family were around the corner at the cookout and were fine.  So, I walked around the corner and there’s a huge party going on.  Seems all the neighbors realized that they were going to lose everything in their refrigerators and freezers so they decided it’s use it or lose it time.  Everyone broke out their grills and ice chests and set up in the middle of the street and threw a party.

On one side of the street the houses were fine.  On the other side they’d had 5 feet of water for two days.  So everyone pitched in and would strip the flooded houses for a while, then kick back and drink a beer, eat a hot dog, and then get back to it.  As I drove around later in the day I bet I passed 2 dozen block parties like this.  But now I’ve got to get back to the evacuation point to see how the bridge was working.  It was working fine.

Within 20 to 30 minutes, everyone that wanted or needed to leave was gone.  Keep in mind that there’s about 2-3,000 people that live in this neighborhood and most didn’t really want or need to leave.  What they really needed at this point was to just go to the store for supplies. Plus there were tons of people that were trapped on the other side and just wanted to come in and check on their houses and families.

So I changed the bus missions from evacuation duty to shuttle duty.  They started going from the make-shift bridge to the Publix grocery store and back.  After a while there were as many people coming back as there were leaving. Everyone coming back had Styrofoam coolers, bags of ice, beer, water, etc. that they were lugging on foot a mile or more back to their houses.

There were lots of people just standing around watching all of the activity, so I asked if anyone with a vehicle wanted a job to do. Damned near everyone raised their hands, so I said that when the buses come back, since most of these people are on foot, lets load up their supplies and drive them home and come back for more.  Within a few minutes there were about 10 cars and trucks lined up waiting for the next bus. As soon as the people got off the bus, someone would help them load their supplies and someone would drive them home.  Yeah, that’s how we roll in Tennessee.

To the residents of the Coley Davis Rd subdivisions... you rock. In spite of all we went through together, you made my job fun that day.  And, to all of my friends, colleagues, and readers in the Gulf region that are experiencing your own MCI, my heart goes out to you.  If there’s anything we can do, just ask... Tennessee isn’t called the volunteer state for nothing!

And, lastly, I’d like to say goodbye to 2 industry veterans that are leaving our industry this month.  John Kuehn in Morgantown, West Virginia has been a reader and frequent contributor to my column through the years.  And Jim Carter, owner of Coles and Waller Fine Jewelers in Nashville, TN. I’ve worked with Jim for well over a decade and am going to miss it.  Jim has worked in the store (originally owned by his father) for 47 years. Farewell to both of my friends.  We’re going to miss you.

Chuck is the owner of Anthony Jewelers in Nashville, TN. Chuck also owns CMK Co., a wholesale trade shop that specializes in custom jewelry and repair services to the jewelry industry nationwide. You can contact him at 615-354-6361, www.CMKcompany.com or send e-mail to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .
 
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