The Weight of Water

Flood stories are community stories. They bring us connection with our neighbors (broadly speaking); we share those stories with one another in hallways, on sidewalks, in checkout lines, through Facebook and email, or over a nice dinner. They link us to the people around us through a sense of shared experience, through laughter and occasional tears, and through the ever-present reminder that people do extraordinarily generous things.

Though they are predicated on water and mud and loss, flood stories are affirming stories that tell us about the kind of people we can be—and about fears we didn’t have to face.

“There is a real sense of accomplishment as you finish scraping out one room and move on to the next,” says Cynthia Cyrus, shown with a salvaged photo of her mother.
“There is a real sense of accomplishment as you finish scraping out one room and move on to the next,” says Cynthia Cyrus, shown with a salvaged photo of her mother.

My flood story starts at 2:32 p.m. on Saturday, May 1, when my husband, Tom, interrupted my work as associate dean at the Blair School of Music to tell me to come home—home being three and a half semi-rural acres west of Nashville where we lived with our children, Amelia, Nathaniel and Nissa; our four cats; four ducks; two budgies and 52 chickens.

The brief version of the story includes 11 hours of moving things upstairs and placing them on the floor, since none of us could anticipate just how severe the “moderate” flooding predicted on the early evening news was going to be. The story includes the part about carrying our chickens through the house to the back porch and throwing them on the roof of the kitchen as water poured through the doors of the first floor and came up to our ankles, and then up to our knees. There’s the funny bit about our final exit from the house when Tom paddled the canoe through the front door—the doorjambs helped provide stability—and Amelia and I climbed into the canoe from the inside stairway.

Scenes from a flood: Note the chickens huddled on the roof (top photo).
Scenes from a flood: Note the chickens huddled on the roof (top photo).

Then there’s the re-evacuation as we realized that the parking lot where we’d moved our RV, chosen for being entirely outside the 500-year flood plain, didn’t feel safe. We met our neighbor Charlie in the process and followed him up his driveway when he was finished hauling things across the road. He had a spot in his backyard that was nearly level, and we were able to ride out the rest of the flood in relative comfort. Others, too, were housed by uphill neighbors: The side yard of the farm down the road became a parking lot for more than a dozen cars and several lawnmowers. The folks directly across the street from our house had one family living with them inside the house and another family living in their carport.

The flood waters continued to rise throughout the day Sunday as we napped, read books, and shared coffee, conversation and tools with our hosts. The orange barrels that had closed off the highway got wet, wetter, and then floated away altogether. Charlie’s porch went under, then his mailbox.

On Monday, the misty morning revealed the giant lake our neighborhood had become. It wasn’t until after breakfast that the water started receding, and not until noon that it was safe to get to the highway and bicycle the quarter mile to check on the status of our house. (Bicycles can get through what cars cannot.)

Even with the water level down significantly, we found ourselves canoeing at gutter level on the kitchen roof. I peeked in upstairs and was greeted by a frenetically overjoyed cat. We could tell the water had topped the beds on the second story and that the 11 hours of moving things upstairs had been for naught, as anything not set on countertops was pretty much a total loss. We later learned that 25 feet of water had been in our home.

By dinnertime Monday evening I was able to enter the hip-deep water of the first floor. This first foray inside shocked me. It was almost impossible to walk. The mess was incredible, with caved-in ceiling Sheetrock mixed in with unidentifiable pieces of furniture (I’m still not sure how the coffee table wound up in the doorway of the playroom), craft materials, a jumble of toys, videotapes and books. With each step, something would shift like slick cobbles in a river crossing. It was eerily silent, with only the occasional rooster call to give normalcy to an apocalyptic interior landscape.

Amelia gathered up the bodies of the budgies and a duckling, and I collected the bodies of the 24 chickens that had been housed inside the downstairs craft room, wishing intensely all the while that we’d put the whole flock on the kitchen roof.  We looked for the oldest cat, but didn’t find her body until later. After a funeral up the hill for the pets that didn’t survive, we again canoed through the front door and performed a kitty rescue, evacuating the three survivors in improvised pet carriers. That evening Tom and I shared a bottle of nice wine—the cats weren’t the only thing we had rescued.

Monday we also began fielding the question that became a sort of Nashville mantra for the month: What can I do to help? By the close of the day, we had an offer of temporary housing in hand (with its associated pun, “safe harbor”), although the waters between our stretch of highway and the rest of town were still too high to pass except by boat.

A colleague at Blair stepped in and covered a senior honors thesis defense for me. My fellow associate deans at Blair redistributed duties to cover senior exit interviews and deal with “whatever arises.” Throughout Sunday and Monday my decanal colleagues across campus crafted and shared drafts of emails to faculty about the extraordinary situation, coordinating the varied responses to the cancellation of Monday’s final exams, so that all I had to do was chime in and say, “Sounds good.”

I’m not sure people elsewhere can appreciate how valuable Vanderbilt was in coordinating information for those of us cut off by water. Norma Gandy, Blair’s executive secretary, provided us with news snippets (like the fact that Nashville had been declared a federal disaster area), helped to coordinate work crews and various volunteer efforts at our place, and provided thoughtful guidance and links to resources.

You learn through an experience like this what a community means. During the course of the various work days at the house, our “gratitude board” (a whiteboard to collect names of volunteers) grew to include well over 100 people. Two current Blair students coordinated a student team of volunteers at the end of finals week, and then stayed late a second day to help Amelia salvage photos. Vanderbilt faculty and staff came out in droves and lifted, sorted and moved the stuff of our lives. Alumni appeared, including a number of representatives of the Class of 2006 (thanks, guys!) and several out-of-towners.

We had help from our church community (GNUUC, the Unitarian church in Bellevue) and from volunteers who just showed up with tools, generators, light sets and wheelbarrows—along with strength to haul a waterlogged piano, wet mattresses, and all the other furniture to the curb. People helped with laundry, took down bibliographic citations from the pages of waterlogged notes for my next book, and took the kids away to give them a dose of “normal time.”

Food, shelter and clothing appeared as if by magic. The Red Cross delivered hot meals twice a day. You never think you’re going to find yourself grateful for the free meal truck, but it saved us many trips to the grocery store, and every moment of salvage time was a chance to find something else that could be saved. We stayed with a friend for a few days, and then my cross-campus colleagues nominated me for a faculty-in-residence slot that has provided us with stable housing while the various agencies wend their way through the decision flowchart.

Clothes arrived, left at the car, sent by mail, or brought in person. Betty Lee (Peabody College’s registrar), for instance, left me a batch of professional clothes (no mud!) in my office, which I gratefully wore to our final faculty meeting and to Commencement.

Boxes at Blair held toiletries, pillows, bedding, a frying pan, a coffee pot. From across the country, small gifts—a comic book assortment, stuffed dragons, stationery, novels—came drifting in. Someone I had met once at a party gave us five boxes of home school materials. A stranger from Pegram, Tenn., came by with snacks, crocks and cleaning supplies.

We had matching shoes, unlike our next-door neighbor who had grabbed one brown shoe and one blue shoe. It is hard to be upset about the loss of things when cadaver dogs are searching your backyard. Other people lost so much more.

This rich catalog of thoughtful gestures still awaits proper thanks and, some two months after the high-water mark, the listing of gifts both tangible and intangible continues to grow. We are keenly aware of the breadth of support and are humbled by the outpouring of goodwill.

People have asked how we have kept our spirits up throughout this ordeal. Answers vary depending on the moment, but a few things have been particularly important. We were never scared; our experience was basically yard-becomes-lake—no white water for us. No exciting, dramatic, scary moments; we evacuated to the RV, which had running water and a generator, so we didn’t even have to face hardship housing.

Then, too, we’ve always had those points of comparison. As we became fond of pointing out, it always could have been worse. We had matching shoes, unlike our next-door neighbor who had inadvertently grabbed one brown shoe and one blue shoe as he dumped clothes in a bag. Likewise, it is hard to be upset about the loss of things when cadaver dogs are searching your backyard. Other people lost so much more than we did. Our post-flood inventory started at zero; each thing we find is one more thing than we thought we had. We make discoveries, instead of counting loss by loss by loss.

A flood doesn’t end when the water leaves; the two months since the high-water mark have been packed with work and with experiences. The physical work is grueling, and the navigation of bureaucracy requires a skill set all its own.

But my story is not an unhappy one. I got to say a fond farewell to many of the books downstairs as I did a quick-and-dirty inventory for insurance purposes. There is a real sense of accomplishment as you finish scraping out one room and move on to the next. And through it all, there has been laughter with the family (“this wasn’t the RV trip we had listed on the calendar”), emailing with friends, and talking, talking, talking.

Our story isn’t over—recovery will take a long time—but it has become a point of connection between us and the large and generous community that surrounds us.

Cynthia J. Cyrus has been named associate provost for undergraduate affairs, effective next January. Facebook members may view her flood photo album at

Explore Story Topics