Wednesday, May 5, 2010

on drowning

"Louisiana 1927" by Randy Newman

The New Orleanians who are reading this probably will not click "play" on that YouTube video. Hell, I only made it to the first time Randy croons Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline just now before I had to turn it off.

Randy Newman recorded "Louisiana 1927" in 1974 as an homage to the victims of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the worst river flood in U.S. history. It's a heartbreaking lament for the people--and the place--that drowned.

But after August 28, 2005, this became Katrina's song too.

I've never really written about my experience with Katrina, except for this short poem that was published in the spring/summer 2007 volume of Zone 3. I have never found any other words for the experience.

by Katherine Morrow Jones

I envy the cats
and their perpetual sleep.

my mother is descended of Charlemagne
and several King Edwards and
her own mom, with her scattered mind.
mama put me to bed each night
intoxicating blonde hair and lotioned skin
but I would not go down -
awake, under blankets
imagining myself a kitten
in its mother's womb.

I slept deeply for years
in New Orleans
crescent mama
now the city sleeps
without me
the day she drowned
was thick and red
and all the way in Texas
I couldn't breathe

if god came back
he'd have to tell us
he's sorry.

* * *

I have imagined Nashville drowning before. In the unbearable days following Katrina, my reeling mind grasped at what disaster could possibly be worse than this? Only one thing I could conjure--my home, my parents' house of 25 years, washing away in a flood. Drowned like my New Orleans drowned. Absolutely nowhere safe left.

This weekend I glimpsed that worst nightmare when my hometown endured well over a foot of torrential rains over the course of 48 hours. The innumerable winding creeks and small rivers in Nashville swelled feet above their banks and flowed with a vengeance toward the Cumberland, which then crested Monday night at an astonishing 12 feet above flood stage.

What does that even mean? Here's what it means. My city was swallowed without warning by foot after foot--over 12 feet in some places--of chocolate-milk-colored flood water.

Dover Anthony plays a sad song. Knights Motel, East Nashville 5/2/10.
Photo by John Partipilo.

It is with bone-deep gratitude that I report to you that my parents' house was spared, but it was a close one--neighbors as close as two doors down sustained flood damage.

Although my house was spared, my home was not. My homeland, the neighborhoods and parks and restaurants that were the backdrop of my childhood and my husband's childhood, were damaged beyond comprehension. Bellevue and Franklin, the most beloved areas of my old stompin' grounds, sustained some of the worst damage.

And all the way in Georgia, I couldn't breathe.

Everyone's seen pictures like these before. We've watched New Orleans drown and Port-au-Prince collapse and Phuket just get washed away. So let me tell you what these pictures mean to me. Maybe it will help you understand.

View of downtown Nashville from pedestrian bridge 5/3/10.
Photo by John Partipilo.

Before I moved away to Big Cities like Atlanta, this was The City to me. The Ryman, the Mother Church of Country Music. The Riverfront. The Batman building. I was born in downtown Nashville. I got married last May in downtown Nashville to a man who was born in downtown Nashville just a few months before me. I spent lazy summer nights in high school at the Riverfront seeing free concerts at Dancin' in the District. In the summer of 2001 I saw a then-nameless John Mayer opening for They Might Be Giants.

Pinkerton Park in Franklin floods 5/2/10.
Photo by Mandy Lunn.

In 1863, Union forces built Fort Granger as an artillery position for the Franklin-Nashville campaign of the Civil War. Now Fort Granger is surrounded by a lovely, sprawling park that crawls with Franklinites on sunny days. My high school friends and I spent absolutely every warm day after school in this park trying to avoid underage smoking citations. We had a secret hideout hidden in the trees on the slopes of Fort Granger, and we used to find each other by screaming out like a bird of prey caw-CAWWWWWWW! until someone else replied in kind. I still like to while away lazy afternoons here with my best friend Emily when I'm home.

The Cascades in Opryland Hotel took on between 10 and 19 feet of water.
Photo by John Partipilo.

The Opryland Hotel,the world's largest non-casino hotel, is a Nashville institution and an incredible tourism draw. I had my junior and senior proms at the Opryland Hotel. I still remember teetering in my high heels across the endless parking lot. In more recent years, it's become a DePalma family tradition to have a sumptuous Easter Brunch in the Cascades, all roast beef and chocolate sundaes and nephews and laughter.

Residents evacuated from Fieldstone Farms 5/2/10.
Photo by Mandy Lunn.

In 9th grade geography, crazy Mrs. Redman once memorably asked the class which country was next poised for global domination. One of my classmates called out "Fieldstone Farms!" Fieldstone is a massive, massive neighborhood development in Franklin that was built in the 1990s. It is noted for having a wide range of income levels, from the affectionately-termed Village of the Damned, with its endless rows of cookie-cutter condos and identical mailboxes spaced perfectly along the street, to the very chi-chi Gated Parts where most homes boast a pool or a movie theater or sometimes both. I could spend all afternoon making a list of the families I know that live here. My beloved Bradford's mother vacuums her entire Fieldstone Farms house once a day. Jessica's parents Fieldstone Farms house, bedecked in Harley swag, was the site of many amateur haircuts and gossipy nights. Jim and Teri and Ben used to live in a teeny little house tucked into the corner of Fieldstone that was filled with nothing but love and their omnipresent dalmatian Hyper. Emily and Nikki and Mrs. Sawyer and basically practically everyone lived there. A lot of their families still do.

Metro Fire Department Special Operation rescues a Belle Meade police officer off Harding Road in Belle Meade 5/2/10. Police officer Norm Shelton was clinging to a tree for an hour before being rescued.
Photo by Shelley Mays.

This intersection may very well be the epicenter of my life in Nashville. This is the road that leads from Nashville out to my folks' house near Bellevue. Just past the boat lies St. George's, the preschool I attended with my best friends Rebecca and Bradley. The Ingram building, the office building my father worked in for twenty years (that Bradley and I would work in for 5 or 10 ourselves) is just behind where the photographer was standing. One of my earliest memories is of my father and his colleagues having a swimming race through the two-foot-deep fountain out front. Many years later, the back-breaking weekend my friends and I helped move my father's company to an office building across the street, Bradley and Kristin and I jumped in the fountain ourselves in the middle of the night and splashed around joyously. Belle Meade is pronounced like bell mead but my family likes to call it Bellay Mee-ah-day.

Homes and cars flooded in River Plantation 5/2/10.
Photo by George Walker IV

The unfortunately-named River Plantation neighborhood is just a mile or two from my parents' house. This neighborhood has been the home of dozens of my friends through the years. Jamie over at Gimmeyummy, whom both my husband and I were friends with over the years (me at TYWW and Nick in middle school) grew up here. Her folks still live there. She posted a video on Facebook of her brother and her wading through the neighborhood to see their house on Monday. Rose, the lovely and incredible mother of my dear friend of two zillion years Denise (over at ohpiegoodness) lives in River Plantation and the losses she's sustained are staggering. I'm thankful that our friends the Faireys moved out of River Plantation a couple of years ago and headed to Memphis. That's one less sad story.

Man kayaking down Hillsboro Road in Franklin 5/2/10.
Photo by Mandy Lunn.

This intrepid fellow is kayaking down the road that runs in front of mine and Nick's high school. If I have driven down this road once, I have driven down it five thousand times. Just across from this dealership sits the Franklin Sonic, home of half-price Happy Hour every day from 2-4--just in time for school to let out. If I've had one lemon-berry slush in a hot car at this Sonic, I've had five thousand lemon-berry slushes in hot cars at this Sonic. I come back virtually every single time I come home. Because there's something comforting about it, I guess.

* * *

I'll leave you with this. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but sometimes three words are worth a thousand pictures.

Sonic on Hillsboro Road in Franklin 5/3/10.
Photo submitted to CNN iReport by davbar4

We are sad.

Please donate $10 to the Red Cross by texting 'REDCROSS' to 90999 Also check out the Nashville Flood Relief Twitter and Facebook pages my old friend Ryan set up that we've been running with the help of two perfect strangers, Logan and Jeremy, who rule.

Discussion Question:
What have you lost to natural disasters?


  1. What a great post, very personal. You definitely make Nashville your own :-)

  2. amazing, katie, thank you so much. <3

  3. Nick--Thanks baby :)

    Erika--Thanks for reading. I'm so glad your parents stayed safe and dry too!

  4. Um haha I guess I was assuming that was Erika Miller

  5. You rock, Katie. Keep sharing the stories and making people aware.

  6. Thanks Ryan :) All your folks safe and dry?

  7. Katie, you're beautiful and amazing. Everything you do is beautiful and amazing.
    I swear, sometimes I just want to read volumes of you.
    Is that too much to ask?

  8. Katie,

    Thanks for posting this. As someone who grew up in Nashville and spent so many years between Bellevue and Franklin, yet now having to watch this story unfold from so far away, you've put to writing many of the thoughts I've only simply run over and over in my head.

  9. :) :) :) Thank you, sweetheart!

    I wrote my first novel last fall, so perhaps one day you will get your wish haha

  10. Hey Jim,

    Thanks for reading. :) Isn't it horrible to be so far away when things like this happen?

  11. Thank you for this Katie! You've put into words what many are feeling, but unable to truly express right now.

  12. Thanks Cassidy! I'm glad y'all stayed safe and dry!

  13. Sorry it took so long for me to read this, it was really lovely. Thanks for everything you've been doing the last few days.

  14. Thanks for reading, Ryan! Don't worry--I'm going to blog about the volunteer effort too :)

  15. At first I thought you were going to post about having almost actually drowned, and then I was relieve to find out that that wasn't the case. Then I was sad again to hear all of this. I am so sorry. I can't imagine what you must be going through, but I hope you know that I am sending good vibrations all around.

  16. Aw, Meghan! I'm glad I didn't drown too! haha

  17. Thoughtful post which I have read with immense interest.

    I live in Denmark, and we don't have natural disasters as such here, so I am blessed that I haven't lost anyone or anything in a natural disaster.

  18. Thanks for reading, Louise :)