Big flood (yawn) in flyover country

Talk about bad timing. And bad location.

Someone could write a good country song — or even a bad one — about the great Nashville, Tenn., flood of 2010.

I’m sure you heard about it, assuming you didn’t take a quick restroom break and miss the full report on the news. If you somehow didn’t hear about it, the latest issue of Time carries an in-depth one-paragraph report. In a nutshell, a major American city suffered a tremendous natural disaster: $1.5 billion or more in damages, thousands of homes destroyed, two dozen or more lives lost.

But Music City chose the same weekend as a major oil spill and a failed terrorist attack to endure this fate. Call it bad timing. Worse, the city sometimes referred to as the buckle of the Bible Belt staged its disaster in flyover country. Call it bad location.

However, there’s another major, perhaps bigger factor involved here. Politics. More precisely, the lack of politics to drive the story and media interest.

Newsweek weighed in with this analysis of why the media ignored Nashville. A friend of mine, Brent High, wrote this. Local blogger Patten Fuqua penned this. And here is what The Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz said in response to a question earlier this week:

Q. There’s a lot of anger in Nashville from people who are convinced that the national media ignored that city’s flood and much of west Tennessee. What about it — do they have a valid point?

A. They have a completely valid point. With a few exceptions — CNN’s Anderson Cooper went there late last week — the devastating Nashville flooding was a blip on the national radar. It was, to be sure, overshadowed by the Times Square attempted bombing and the Gulf oil spill. But I also believe that because there was no political component, no one to blame, it didn’t interest the pundits much because there was nothing to argue about.

Nashville also seems to have hurt itself (in terms of media coverage) by not screwing up the disaster response. Besides the city government, Red Cross and community groups, the relief effort involves thousands of volunteers organized by churches.

Bob Smietana, GetReligion reader and Tennessean religion writer extraordinaire, shares these insights:

There’s a real sense of neighbors helping neighbors and a can-do spirit. A lot of the work has been organized by Twitter and Facebook and other social media.

Also — unless you are here, you can’t appreciate scope of the flood. So far 18,000 people have applied for FEMA relief to repair their homes — a striking number. It’s all over Nashville — from the wealthy Bellevue community to the impoverished Bordeaux community north of downtown to immigrant communities in Antioch to rural Hickman County. Unless you get your feet on the ground and into neighborhoods, you don’t get a feel for the enormity of the disaster.

The flood happened unexpectedly as well — we were supposed to get a few inches of rain and got 20 in two days. But there was no dramatic buildup — like during Katrina, or during floods in the Midwest, where the rivers rose slowly and there was time to repair. It’s a massive disaster that came literally from nowhere.

The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily newspaper, has been all over this story, of course. And as you’d expect, it’s dripping with religion angles (see here, here, here, here and here for a start).

But what the story lacks is a real news peg. No, flooded homes won’t work. Neither will a herculean relief effort. What we need here are some Nashville leaders willing to step up and argue. Loudly. On TV. Give the media something worth reporting.

If the Southern Baptist Convention can’t stage a made-for-prime-time debate between fundamentalists and liberals, perhaps native son Al Gore could step in and blame the flooding on global warming — or better yet, find a reason to criticize Washington’s role in the disaster response. As a last resort, maybe Sarah Palin could bring a Flood-the-Town-with-Tea-Party event to Nashville to raise awareness and drum up media interest. Whatever it takes.

Because right now, the only story here is a devastated community and thousands of lives forever changed. Yawn.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Jerry

    Sadly it’s true that good news even the good news of an effective response is not sexy.

  • Jonathan S.

    The lack of a national media coverage has been infuriating. The most egregious example of the sorry state of our media culture was that there was a 30-60 second update on Nashville’s recovery efforts that was INTERRUPTED by 5 minutes of discussion about some entertainment news (who got booted off “Dancing with the Stars” or what Lady GaGa has done now). I don’t remember if it was CNN, ABC, Fox – it doesn’t matter because I was so disgusted I turned it off. This is not an isolated incident, either, from what friends and others have reported. (If you can’t tell, I’m from Nashville.)

  • MJBubba

    This puts me in mind of “Hurricane Elvis,” which was a surprise violent storm in Memphis in the summer of 2003 that went totally unnoticed by national media, and was only a blip of news even in Nashville. While only two or three people were killed, there were about 330,000 households that lost power, and 75,000 still were waiting for power restoration after 2-1/2 weeks. It knocked out about 500 traffic signals and toppled trees all over town, but was not covered by the media. What really torqued us here was that four weeks later, just shortly after our power outages were finally all restored, there was nationwide blanket media coverage of a New York City blackout that only lasted for a couple of hours.
    I can’t say that I see much of a religious ghost here, just mass media blindness to anything that doesn’t affect the coasts.

  • Bobby

    MJBubba, when I worked at AP, all potential national stories went through New York. I was surprised often at the news that wasn’t deemed worthy of moving on the national wire. But you can bet that if there was a power outage at a high rise in New York, that was national news! I think AP has decentralized its editing a bit in recent years.

  • MJBubba

    Bobby, thankfully our Nashville cousins (on both sides) were not flooded. A buddy of mine forwarded an e-mail from his church about crews being formed to go roam neighborhood streets to help clean up. The City had put out a request to sort the refuse to help speed the cleanup efforts. They asked for four separate piles of yard litter, garbage, construction debris, and junk appliances. The word was getting around after a lot of stuff had already been piled up hastily, so these folk (literally hundreds of volunteer crews organized by churches) were wandering around to sort the flotsam from the flood. There have been some wry (and some bitter) jokes about waiting for FEMA.

  • penny

    This is how bad the media is..I live in Missouri and have friend who lives outside of Nashville..He lost most of his things..When he called me He must have thought that I was heartless or crazy when he told me about the flooding…I had no idea that anything of this historic measures even happened..I had heard nothing on the news or radio about it until he called..He asked me if I had seen what was going on..I said yeah there’s a oil spill in the gulf..He said no that this was worse..and made me promise him i would go find a t.v. to watch and see what happened..Waited a long time before they finally got around to talking about it..The Weather Channel covered it more than the news..But they are from Tennessee and they will one day put this behind them…Good luck to each and everyone….