Inside the lives of east nashville flood survivors
A few weeks ago, Jeremy Hundley was getting dressed for a wedding when he realized he didn’t have a single tie to go with his suit. His ties were lost in three feet of dirty river water in last year’s record flood, but until that moment, Hundley had never thought about replacing them.
For Hundley, though, it’s not just the ties. It’s the missing rolling pin in the midst of making apple pie. It’s the missing level that he needs to hang a picture. When Hundley and his wife Leila first spoke to The East Nashvillian last June, the flood had destroyed the couple’s 2,000-squarefoot ranch on Brittany Drive and all the contents therein. Today, they’re preparing to move into a brandnew home built on the same spot, but these small, weekly reminders continue to haunt him.
“You just take so many little things for granted,” the realtor says.
Starting From Scratch
Hundley’s angst is fading, though, in his excitement about their new home, elevated eight feet above the ground, milky white siding lending the rectangular structure an ethereal glow. Repairs on the old house proved so expensive that the Hundleys brought in an architect and started from scratch. As they waited for the house to be finished in May, they lived with friends and relatives, rented a house in Inglewood, and house-sat for friends.
“I feel like I’ve aged about five years in the past 12 months. I’m exhausted,” Hundley says. “My wife feels the same way.”
All they own is a mattress and some clothes, but the couple can finally rest after emerging victorious from a fourmonth battle with their insurance company.
“When the adjuster came out, he gave us the impression he was going to take care of us,” Hundley says. “I thought, finally someone’s on our side. But from then on it was a fight. It took him almost a month to get me my estimate, and it was $80,000 on a $225,000 policy.”
Through persistence and patience, Hundley saw his estimate jump more than $70,000. But, as he points out, few other flood victims had the time, energy and real estate knowledge to outrun the insurance companies. Hundley’s neighbors, an elderly, disabled couple, have a house 800 square feet larger than his, but their estimate came in $40,000 lower. A year later, their roof still isn’t finished.
“There’s a lot of bad information out there,” Hundley says. “I tell everybody, document everything. Check your policy limits. Use a public adjuster. Expect that it’s going to be a ‘used car,’ haggling game where you have to fight.”
Better Than Before
Kathleen Campbell-Smith, a massage therapist and single mom whose backyard edges Shelby Bottoms, also received low estimates after three feet of water swirled through her house and 10 feet filled her garage.
“We were very persistent. The first adjuster came here and didn’t cover the drywall and the insulation in the walls, among other things,” she says. “I forced them to come back and deal with issues that hadn’t been covered. They sent another adjuster who did a very good job and we got some more money to help with renovations.”
Neighbors and friends helped with gift cards and checks, but the renovations dragged on for the better part of a year. Campbell- Smith hoped to move back before Thanksgiving; contractors pushed the date to February 1. Now, after months of renting, she’s finally home again, unpacking boxes, painting and finishing small construction. Most of her neighbors are just now trickling back to their homes—and they’re all planning a big summer block party to celebrate.
“My house is a lot better looking than it used to be,” Campbell-Smith says. “I turned my garage into a living space, and opened up my kitchen and modernized it. The house is worth more now—not that anyone would want to buy it!”
She’s not the only flood survivor who’s added a few bells and whistles. Since sharing their flood experience with The East Nashvillian last year, Lee Shropshire and Andy Scheinman say they’ve made improvements to their 1940s home on Sunnymeade Drive. The musicians used the floodwaters that rose five feet in their basement as an opportunity to go eco-friendly and cut their utilities in half. During eight months of repairs to the house and yard, contractors installed ductless splits heating and air, a tank-less water heater and an energy-efficient washer and dryer.
“It forced us to redo our house,” Scheinman says with a wry smile.
The couple had to borrow against their home to pay for the repairs—they were told they didn’t need flood insurance since they weren’t on a flood plain— but $7,000 from FEMA helped them complete the job. Shrophire says she’s relieved it’s all over and tickled they got the screened-in deck they always wanted.
“I’m still a little angsty because I lost my [art] studio,” she says. “But our first and foremost feeling, when knew we still had a house—we were immensely grateful for that. Gratitude took a bunch of the negative emotion away.”
As normalcy returns to many flood survivors, others simply haven’t had the chance to heal. For 20 years, Gayle O’Hanlon, the petite blond owner of Enchanted Gingerbread, created exquisite gingerbread masterpieces for clients like Oprah and Gaylord Opryland in a sparkling custom kitchen in her Moss Rose Drive home—until seven feet of floodwater engulfed her equipment and workspace. O’Hanlon and her family escaped in kayaks.
“I had already completed 1,000 ornaments for Christmas at Gaylord,” O’Hanlon says. “The stench of the wet gingerbread was awful.”
The flood set in motion a series of setbacks leading to O’Hanlon’s financial ruin. Friends raised $800 to help salvage her business and she did her best to fulfill vast gingerbread orders in friends’ kitchens and a warehouse off Gallatin Road, but in April, she could no longer afford to operate. In tears, she moved back into her gutted house with her son and dogs; their jumble of belongings still sits in a storage unit on the front lawn.
“For 20 years, you could ask me any given day how many days there were until Christmas,” O’Hanlon says. “This year, I don’t know what Christmas means to me, because I don’t know if I’m going to get to do gingerbread. This whole thing has devastated me emotionally.”
Friends encourage her to declare bankruptcy, but O’Hanlon is determined to pay back every penny she owes, and to rebuild her home by hand. From the back porch, steps wind down to a beautiful deck and grilling station, as well as an in-ground pool overlooking the river—even stripped and crusted with Tennessee clay, it offers an eye-popping view. As O’Hanlon lives in the upstairs bedroom of what she calls her “Shangri-La,” she’s looking for a job so she can pay back her creditors.
“My goal is to continue to make gingerbread, but I am also an airbrush artist and sew and bartend and cater,” she says. “I have an occupational permit and I can still give workshops to children and hold cake decorating classes. I’m trying to reinvent myself.”
O’Hanlon welcomes job leads and additional hands to help organize her belongings. “I’m just trying to focus and compartmentalize all these things that have happened,” she says. “I’m trying to do little things to get myself back in the swing.”
For some flood survivors, this year has brought closure. For others, like O’Hanlon, it’s only the beginning. But many, like Hundley, are finally able to put it all in perspective.
“We don’t have a vacuum cleaner, scissors or a power strip,” Hundley says. “I was the guy you borrowed tools from; now they’re just all rusted and gone. It’s been tough. It was not expected. But we all need to help each other. I want to give back to the community any way I can. There are worse things: You look at Japan and this looks like a mud puddle.”