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Opryland Hotel on Monday (AP/Photo by Mark Humphrey)

After the deluge

Disaster relief | Tennesseans of all stripes pitch in to help their flooded-out neighbors

The massive relief effort unfolding in deluged Nashville a week after the region suffered its worst flooding since 1937 is a little like the country music the city made famous: It's got everything from crooners to convicts to churchgoers. All are pitching in after flooding and tornadoes killed at least 29 people in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky last weekend. More than 13 inches of rain fell on Middle Tennessee in two days, which overflowed the Cumberland River, flooded thousands of homes, and wreaked at least $1 billion worth of damage in Nashville alone.

Country music stars began pledging big checks to restore the city that fosters their music, even as the Grand Old Opry's stage sat soaking under water. The Country Music Association announced the group would still hold its annual music festival in downtown Nashville in June, and that it would donate half of the event's proceeds to recovery, a figure that could exceed $1 million.

For a town dependent on tourism and music, the flood is devastating: The Gaylord Opryland Hotel represents 12 percent of Nashville's hotel availability and brought in $247 million in revenue last year. Now its owners say the huge complex will sit vacant for at least six months after flooding submerged much of the resort's ground floors.

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But it's not just country stars like Taylor Swift and Vince Gill coming to the rescue: Authorities said without the help of some 400 local inmates, the city likely wouldn't have drinking water. The inmates at a Davidson County jail bagged 500 tons of sand on Monday to form a wall around the Omohundro Water Treatment Plant. Without that wall, the city's lone treatment plant would likely be under water.

Civic groups and Christian organizations also rushed to help: The American Red Cross set up shelters for people whose homes were flooded, and the Salvation Army helped arrange delivery of meals to outlying areas. Nashville Mayor Karl Dean said 7,000 people volunteered to help within 48 hours through Hands on Nashville.

Samaritan's Purse established two operating camps for relief work in the Nashville area: One at the Bethel World Outreach Center and another at Two Rivers Baptist Church. The group mobilized church volunteers from across the region to help clear out water, mud, and soaked possessions from homes in the area.

Two other churches-Judson Baptist Church and Poplar Heights Baptist Church-prepared to host disaster relief units from the Southern Baptist Convention that would prepare thousands of meals each day.

President Barack Obama declared the area a disaster zone, making residents in affected areas eligible for federal aid. By Thursday, some 8,500 residents had registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agencey (FEMA) for disaster relief, and the agency said it would send some 600 workers to the region. Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen said he was especially worried about areas outside of Nashville that were hit hard and have far fewer resources and could remain isolated from help for days: "Some of our rural counties are a much tougher case. . . . Those are the places that FEMA and the Red Cross become extraordinarily important in the response."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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