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A Way of Life Washed Away

NASHVILLE - As Tiffany Wiggers rests a hand on her pregnant belly and explains why she doesn't have flood insurance, the Harpeth River flows by serenely, 100 yards away. Two days earlier, that seemingly harmless river was ravaging her house.

Wiggers, a 27-year-old accountant, is one of thousands of people in middle Tennessee whose lives and homes were swamped with muddy water and chaos when weekend rains set a two-day Nashville record of nearly 14 inches.

Few have flood insurance. They are relying for now on help from volunteers while they await word of what financial aid the Federal Emergency Management Agency will provide.

In this neighborhood, at least no lives were lost. The waters that raged through Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi are blamed for at least 30 deaths this week. Nashville Mayor Karl Dean says the city's damage will top $1 billion.

"Here's the kicker," says Wiggers, still able to muster a giggle. "Everybody on this side of the street, we paid lot premiums to be near the river: $15,000. You have to laugh to keep from crying."

The Harpeth is a tributary of the Cumberland River that soaked parts of downtown Nashville. It perhaps is best known as a gentle stream where novice canoeists can take day trips without fear of calamity.

But in Wiggers' Riverwalk development in the Bellevue section of Nashville, the river rose to 27.3 feet, 3 feet above the record set in 1948, according to the National Weather Service.

As the Harpeth rushed over its banks, it felled giant oaks and yanked out spikes that held train tracks in place. Downstream in Cheatham County, it swept three homes off their foundations and into the river, where they smashed into a railroad bridge.

Wiggers says she and her husband, Jason, asked their real estate agent, builder, lender and insurance agent about flood insurance.

"They all said, 'You're not in a flood plain, so you don't need it,' " recalls Wiggers, who left her home Sunday in a rescue boat with her dog. "I was like, 'FEMA and the bank said we won't need it, so we're in the clear.' "

Don Bouressa, who lives a few houses away on Riverfront Drive, wipes away tears.

"As far as the amount of money we've put in the house, that's just gone," he says. "The last two days have been hell. If it hadn't been for people coming in here to help, I don't know what we would have done."

His wife, Deborah, estimates the neighborhood had 100 volunteers working Monday. "We had eight of them yesterday," she says, "helping us pull wet insulation from under the house. One guy had taken the week off."

Metro Nashville Councilman Bo Mitchell also lives in Riverwalk, although on high ground. Mitchell, his wife, Chastity, and others have organized a neighborhood network that is shuttling meals and other essentials to flood victims. By their count, 150 of Riverwalk's 601 homes have flood damage.

'There's no villain'

Information is being circulated on Facebook, because it's available on phones. Neighbors whose homes weren't damaged are taking care of other neighbors' kids.

"The people who were flooded need somebody to watch their kids while they're tearing their houses apart, and we have a lot of stay-at-home moms," Chastity Mitchell says. Others are doing laundry for families that now need every item of clothing they own washed. Dinner on Tuesday was 60 chickens donated by the Publix grocery store.

The view from Riverwalk includes a limestone bluff that rises hundreds of feet on the far side of the Harpeth, yet the rural feel is just a 15-minute drive from downtown. The neighborhood of $200,000-$400,000 homes celebrates its proximity to the Harpeth with street names such as Bending River and Wide Water.

Mitchell says he has spoken with only one person who has flood insurance. He says the eligibility rules must be re-evaluated.

"You just don't expect something like this," he says. "There's no villain. There's no bad guy. Some of the parts of Bellevue that have been flooded, you'd never expect the little Harpeth River to do that."

He adds, "We really don't have time right now to point fingers at anyone. It's time to come together and help your neighbors and make sure your neighbors have food, shelter and clothing."

Volunteer efforts are being coordinated through Hands On Nashville's website (hon.org). Riverfront Drive resident David Barlar says the onslaught of help has amazed him.

"I'd say close to 15 people came," says Barlar, 27. "Their graciousness toward us has been more overwhelming than the flood itself."

Volunteers have been vital for getting recovery pointed in the right direction, Barlar says.

"I am still kind of overwhelmed," says the graphic artist, who moved into Riverwalk last August with his wife, Jennifer. "I wouldn't have known where to begin. I was clueless."

To begin, he was told, strip off all flooded wallboard to 1 foot above where the moisture reached, to prevent mold. Then, remove any wet insulation. Next, take out the flooring.

Chastity Mitchell says neighbors brought in Hurricane Katrina survivors to make sure people understood the need for demolition. When some hesitated to take their homes apart, experienced people said, "No, you need to do it," she says.

Still, it was a bitter task for Ray Fryoux, a drummer from Louisiana. He had just completed remodeling a home he bought through foreclosure.

"I haven't even paid my first note on it," Fryoux says. "We spent everything we had on redoing this house. New flooring, new fixtures. We repainted. It kind of looked like a brand-new home when we finished. All new appliances, everything."

Now, Fryoux says, "What you see in my garage, that little pile, that's what we have.

"It's crazy. You move away from Louisiana to get away from floods, and then this happens."

He registered for FEMA aid online at a friend's house and says he is satisfied with the process.

Fryoux, his wife and their 2-year-old spent Sunday night in a Red Cross homeless shelter. Several other Riverwalk residents were taken in by neighbors. Councilman Mitchell says people are trying to make homes that are for sale or for lease available to flood victims.

'Tragedy brings out the best'

Meanwhile, the race to get wet materials out of homes has led to heaps of waste in driveways throughout this 3-year-old development. Portable toilets are spaced out on the hardest-hit streets, and many lawns are filled with muddy mattresses and broken furniture.

Tuesday, Barlar was preparing to power-wash the interior of his gutted home with 40 gallons of bleach. His helpers included Kenny Wells, a member of the Franklin Church of Christ's Christians at Work group.

Wells says he helped with relief efforts after Hurricane Andrew in Florida, and after Katrina and Rita, and also with hurricane relief in Texas. He says the toughest part of such work often is getting the people who need help to accept it.

"First thing I say to them is that it's hard for people in today's 'I'm-in-control' society to let people help them," he says. "I say, 'Don't expect us to expect you to be at the top of your game. You've been through a loss. Let us help you. Pretty much, you can't solve anything by yourself.' "

He adds, "Tragedy brings out the best of the best. I've seen people work for a week for others when they don't even have a roof on their own house."

That describes the situation Wade Story was in Sunday around noon, when the floodwaters began rushing into Riverwalk. The Nashville firefighter was helping neighbors in the wettest areas move furniture upstairs when he heard his wife, Wanda, shouting.

"She said it was time to come and save my own house," Story says. "I've been a fireman for 35 years - that's just what I do."

Inside his house, the water rapidly climbed to waist-high. He and his wife left quickly

"I was just too tired," he says. "Everything is pretty much gone. Maybe we can save the dining room set."

By noon Tuesday, though, his gutting project was nearly complete. The couple say they've had help from about 10 volunteers, who also removed siding from exterior walls to let it dry.

"Every year, for 33 years, we've lived around the Harpeth," Wanda Story says, "and we've never had it flood."

The power of the water also amazed Corey Yerbich, who says it flipped over a nearly full, 20-foot-long steel dumpster and sent it sliding at least 50 feet into the corner of a brick house.

The other odd moving object Yerbich saw was a U-Haul trailer floating down the street and into the Harpeth. He says it belonged to a Riverwalk couple from Virginia who had just closed on a Riverfront Drive home Friday.

"They signed the papers, and six hours later it started raining, and it never stopped," Yerbich says as he takes a break from prying up floorboards.

Trying to maintain a little levity, he found the "Sold" sign from when he and his wife, Karen, became some of Riverwalk's first residents three years ago, and planted it in what remains of his front yard. He and a neighbor also made a pact that they are "flood brothers."

Yerbich, who has lived in Tennessee since 1991, says he, too, asked about flood insurance, but he was convinced there was no need.

At 6:30 a.m., when the water was kissing the backyard fence that it eventually flattened, Yerbich still was doubtful the flood would reach his house.

"On Saturday night, I still wouldn't have taken out flood insurance," he says. "On Sunday morning, I might have."

And there's no question what he would have done later, when he got in a neighbor's boat and measured the water depth on one Riverwalk street: 22 feet.

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