When the rain poured on her Nashville home last May, Olivia Johnson was scared. Looking out the front window, she saw water race down her street like a river. In her backyard there was a fountain of sewage.
A day after the rain, Johnson, 56, who never learned to swim, left for her son's home in another Nashville neighborhood and stayed put for a week. When the water receded, she returned to her house near the Cumberland River, thinking all would be normal.
Three months and several trips to the doctor later, Johnson learned everything was far from all right. Water, it turned out, had remained in a crawl space beneath her house, serving as a breeding ground for dangerous bacteria and mold that made her sick.
"I was totally devastated," said Johnson, who lived in temporary housing until the end of March, waiting for repairs on her house to be completed.
"Emotionally, it just tore me to shreds," she said of the ordeal.
As much as 20 inches of rain fell in some areas during two days in May 2010, and 49 of the state's 95 counties from Memphis to Nashville were affected.
Almost 68,000 Tennesseans registered for federal disaster assistance. So far, more than $612 million has been spent to help individuals and communities get back on their feet, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
To help people still struggling, AARP Tennessee held a forum in Nashville on May 5 to identify areas of continued need a year after the flood. The forum occurred in the wake of the recent spate of floods and tornadoes that struck the state.
“We discussed what we learned over the course of the year in hopes of sharing that knowledge with communities that are struggling now, said Karin Miller, communications director for AARP Tennessee.
"What we're learning on the ground is you have people who were shell-shocked," she said. "So what can we do now to help people who didn't get in the system but still need help?"
The group—which included state, federal and local officials as well as key stakeholders and emergency responders—also talked about issues like disputes over flood insurance coverage and how to handle rental properties that are damaged, as well as helping residents who missed deadlines to qualify for federal assistance.
The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency is coordinating cleanup and rebuilding efforts throughout the state. Jeremy Heidt, a TEMA spokesman, called the flood "probably the biggest disaster in Tennessee history. When you look at it in terms of scale, it's unprecedented."
The work of rebuilding communities is nowhere near done.
Heidt said his agency has received 5,600 project worksheets — which localities submit for reimbursement by FEMA — for the flood disaster. By comparison, they processed just 3,000 project worksheets for 16 disasters in the previous 10 years.
"It usually takes us about five years to close out an average disaster, and this was not an average disaster. There's not going to be quick recovery from this," Heidt said. It's too early to tell how many years emergency managers will spend responding to the flood.
The emotional toll is immeasurable, say those still working to help victims.
"It was an incredibly traumatic experience," said Terry Allison Rappuhn, chairman of the Westminster Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Task Force.
The organization, which is one of many groups helping people in the Nashville area, continues to assist more than 100 families hurt by the flood.
"I'm not aware of anyone who came out of this unchanged. It was a huge loss financially and emotionally," Rappuhn said.
Those who are still in need of assistance can find resources on the AARP Tennessee website at aarp.org/tn or by phone at 1-866-295-7274 toll-free, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michelle Diament is a freelance writer living in Memphis, Tenn.
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