Starting over again
On May 2, 2010, Tony Smith and T. Clark Miller, partners for 12 years, followed their usual Sunday morning routine. They woke up, went out for a quiet breakfast and watched as rain pelted the Nashville area.
Neither man would have predicted the almost instant impact of that heavy precipitation. By nightfall, their home had been ravaged due to torrential downpours, and most of their belongings were underwater. Nine months later, the couple continues to recover from what would become the greatest natural disaster in the region's history.
The Middle Tennessee floods of May 1-2 affected the area for several days afterward, resulting in 29 deaths and widespread property damage. The Cumberland River crested at nearly 52 feet in Nashville, unleashing the cascade upon a number of neighborhoods in the area. The couple's three-level home, located in East Nashville near Opry Mills, was one of many residences drowned by the rising tides.
Smith, a chief flight nurse with Vanderbilt LifeFlight and May 2010 graduate of the university's doctoral nursing program, recalls how quickly the wreckage occurred.
"We were sitting there at breakfast, and as it kept raining. I was sitting there thinking 'This is bad," Smith says. "So we went back home and grabbed the three dogs, and went to T. Clark's office to wait it out. Then it just kept raining, so we decided to go back home and we moved some things---antiques, pictures, other valuables---to the third level. Looking back, I would've started earlier, but you just don't know when something like this will happen."
As with many area residents, the couple struggled to evacuate their neighborhood before escape became impossible.
"Thanks to our F-150, we were able to get out," Smith says. "By that time, the water was all the way up to the door. I just told T. Clark to keep his foot on the pedal the whole time. Our street wasn't bad, but the street to get out of neighborhood had a lot of water."
Both men, homeless and heartbroken, had to witness this shocking tragedy play out on local television. Finally, four days after the flood, they were able to return to their neighborhood and view the remains.
Neither was prepared for its appearance. The back deck, estimated at 1100 square feet, had become completely detached from the house. Two vehicles, including a convertible BMW that Miller bought for Smith as an early graduation present, were destroyed. Many of the couple's most treasured possessions were gone forever.
"I lost it," Smith admits. "I totally broke down. Everything I'd worked for, or everything I thought I'd work for, was gone. It was very tough. There have been a lot of times, even though T. Clark was always supportive, that I felt really alone."
In fits and starts, they began taking tentative steps towards reclaiming their life. Smith stresses the small blessings that they encountered as the couple pieced their lives back together. A personal friend of the couple was also a contractor, and he immediately began assessing the damage. And Vanderbilt offered all employees two weeks' pay with no penalty, allowing Smith to spend that time sorting through all the necessary documentation.
Many questioned the national media's delayed response to the flooding, but Smith is proud how the city banded together to make slow but steady progress.
"Nashville responded very well, even if it wasn't getting much attention," he acknowledges. "But as with most disasters, it's really all about what happens in the six months or so after that. You see all this on television, but you don't really know how bad it is and how people are still trying to get things work out."
Forced to go through a difficult recovery process, the couple encountered further issues when dealing with authorities offering assistance to victims.
"Dealing with government agencies is an adventure," says Miller, a writer and producer of the nationally-syndicated radio program Crook & Chase Country Countdown. "The whole process is overwhelming. The worst thing is the fear of unknown. You're forging completely new territory. When you talk to these advisers, there's a lot of misinformation. It's a constant battle."
He adds, "The easiest part of the whole process was the three or four days when we couldn't get into the house. We felt secure that we were insured, and we were wrong. We didn't know all the damage that had been done."
Miller works part-time as a real estate agent, but his expertise in such matters meant little in this situation. Though the couple had shared their lives together for over a decade, their inability to be married legally created problems as they communicated with outside sources. The house, furnished with their money and filled with their memories, was solely in Smith's name.
"Since we weren't an acknowledged couple, we had to approach things differently," Miller admits. "I could've helped a little more with the financial stuff if I had the chance, but everything was in Tony's name. My frustration was with the fact that I was a real estate agent and I'd worked on multiple insurance claims, but Tony had to do a lot of it on his own. He couldn't just give things to me to handle."
In a small bit of fortune, an SBA (Small Business Association) loan allowed them an amount of money to secure living arrangements. However, like most Tennesseans, technicalities in their insurance did not allow reimbursement for the contents of the home. Only the actual structure of their property was covered on their policy.
"That was a slap in the face," Smith says. "My biggest lesson that I would tell people is 'Know your insurance.' You have to know what's covered and what's not. We thought everything in the house would be taken care of, but that wasn't the case. So be looking for very specific things in your insurance."
Maintaining a stable romantic relationship, regardless of circumstance, is a challenge. The couple, who now reside in a downtown condo, have stay committed to each other despite all the pains and pressures involved
"The flood brought on a lot of stresses," Smith says. "It was tough. You get tired of living in a condo and not having a home of your own. It's brought a bunch of issues up, but it's also brought us closer together."
Miller agrees, "We did have emotional moments, but at different times. When one person was having a hard time, the other would be more positive. I feel like it's made us more codependent."
On January 10, they received a brief reward for the deluge of paperwork they've completed in the last nine months. As part of the federal flood buyout program endorsed by President Obama, the couple can relocate using funds appropriated to them by the authorities. Their property, now owned by the local government, will remain vacant. Though it may take another two years to receive their stipend, Miller insists that their situation could have been so much worse.
"One of our big concerns has always been for our neighbors and other people," he says. "We are grateful that we have options and the financial means necessary to rebuild our lives. There are others that don't. There's this perception now that people in Tennessee have gotten back settled, and that's not always the case."