Nashville flood: The South's self-help disaster

While the Nashville, Tennessee, flood will bring federal aid, some complain the area became the nation's hidden disaster. But many Tennesseans are happy to clean up the mess on their own.

Mark Humphrey/AP
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano listens as Ruthie Hostetler describes the flood damage done to her home in Nashville, Tenn. Hostetler's husband, John, holds their daughter, Ariana. Napolitano visited Nashville to view the flood damage and talk with homeowners and cleanup workers.

The deadly flood that soaked Nashville, including iconic music dives like the Grand Ole Opry, may become the worst disaster to hit the state since the Civil War, and one of the worst non-hurricane disasters in US history.

So where was the 24-hour blitzkrieg news coverage of a major US city under water?

With the Gulf oil spill and the Times Square bombing attempt dominating the news cycle, maybe the relative lack of coverage and attention can be chalked up to disaster overload or the lack of a broader political and social narrative of the kind that drove hurricane Katrina coverage.

But one Facebook group still wondered, "Pardon us, did you notice Nashville is drowning?"

Fortunately, it turns out anonymity suits many Tennesseans fine. Chalk up the ambivalence about the relative lack of national coverage and attention to good old country grit – and a city's determination to take care of its own.

"A large part of the reason that we are being ignored is because of who we are," writes Patten Fuqua on the hockey blog Section 303. "Did you hear about crime sprees? No … you didn't. You saw a group of people trying to move two horses to higher ground. [We] weren't doing anything to draw attention to ourselves. We were handling it on our own."

Record rainfall

With a record 13-inch rain, the Cumberland River overflowed its banks last Sunday, yielding dramatic pictures of houses floating along interstates and residents stuck in torrid waters. Ten people died in Nashville alone of 31 total. The cleanup could be one of the costliest in US history.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano went to Nashville Saturday, and President Obama has declared 53 counties as federal disaster areas, clearing the way for residents to receive federal aid.

Political response has been mostly by the book. Relief efforts have been intensely local. Water, food and money have come mostly from individuals, including country singer Taylor Swift, who contributed $500,000 to the effort. The brawny NFL Titans football team will be in town this weekend, helping with the cleanup.

"Already some residents are seeing significant progress, thanks to kind strangers. Kristin Griffith, of nearby Franklin, saw 10 people she didn't know ripping waterlogged boards off her floor at one point," writes the Associated Press.

News watchers counted far fewer Nashville flood mentions on Google News than for parallel news events. But saying that the national media ignored the story is far from fair.

Dearth of media exposure?

Yet many saw a troubling paradox in what was perceived as a dearth of media exposure.

"It was mind-boggling to flip by CNN, MSNBC, and FOX on Sunday afternoon and see not one station even occasionally bringing their viewers footage of the flood, news of our people dying," writes Betsy Phillips of the Nashville Scene.

The gradual move by mainstream media toward opinion over hard news as budgets and circulation shrink could certainly have played a role in how the Nashville flood was perceived and covered.

"Everyone is talking about BP and Faisal Shahzad 24/7, the 'thinking' goes," writes Andrew Romano in Newsweek. "So there must not be anything else that's as important to talk about. It's a horrible feedback loop."

A Newsbusters commenter had a more sanguine view, reflecting on other disasters like the Iowa floods that received less-than-blitzkrieg coverage.

"The only thing that I can figure is that maybe Nashville is doing its best to handle the problem in any way they can, and they aren't whining and crying and blaming somebody or something for what is obviously a natural disaster," the commenter writes. "And also, maybe there's not much 'news' in this for the MSM, since there doesn't appear to be an agenda that they can push.”


Grand Ole Opry flood and other crazy weather: El Niño's fault?

Oil spill, Nashville flood, Times Square bomb: Obama's tough week

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