Nearly 2 years after deadly flooding in Waverly, no legislative funding in place to address statewide crisis

WSMV4 Investigate's Jeremy Finley reports.
Published: Apr. 18, 2023 at 5:58 PM CDT
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WAVERLY, Tenn. (WSMV) - A thin, faded water line on the exterior wall of Sue Bullion’s ex-husband’s home in Waverly is the only reminder of the deadly flooding in 2021.

Bullion and her ex-husband have completely rebuilt the home, complete with new floors, walls and furniture, but she says she’ll never forget his call on the night of the flooding, when eight inches of water entered the home.

“I said get out right now,” Bullion said.

But she said within moments, the surge of water, documented in a WSMV4 Investigation, rushed into his home.

“And he said, ‘I can’t.’ He said the flood is coming in now. And it was up to his chest,” Bullion remembers.

Knowing what her family endured in the flood, she said she wonders why it’s taking so long for the legislature to address the state’s flooding crisis.

A WSMV4 Investigation showed why flooding is increasing across the state and systematic failures in the local, state, and federal level to handle flooding in Tennessee.

“I think it’s more urgent to do something about it now instead of waiting,” Bullion said.

Rep. Bob Freeman, D-Nashville, wonders why the legislature and the Governor’s office haven’t taken any action either.

In the 2021 legislative session, Freeman co-sponsored a bill with Rep. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, asking a government study group for the property and economic losses of natural disasters and how the state should respond. Last year, they came back with a report that showed between 1996 and 2018, the average cost from natural disasters was $343 million, and that by 2055, that number would nearly double to an average of $595 million.

That report also stated that local and state governments are working together for hazard mitigation strategies for floods. Freeman hasn’t seen proof of that.

“It’s almost three years later, I don’t know of any substantial projects that have started,” Freeman said.

In the current legislative session, only one bill has been introduced to create a network of towers to help predict and warn of floods, a technology that WSMV4 Investigates found is already in most states, but not Tennessee.

Funding for that technology is essentially stuck in what’s referred to on Capitol Hill as “behind the budget.” “When something gets put behind the budget, that means there isn’t funding, which means it’s not in the governor’s budget,” Freeman said.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Rep. Greg Vital, R-Harrison, have requested $3.85 million to expand a program that uses an interactive online portal that leverages data and Artificial Intelligence to create predictive flood maps.

But that funding request is in an amendment and is not guaranteed funding.

WSMV4 Investigates asked Governor Bill Lee about the lack of plans and funding at a recent news conference at his wife’s initiative to help flood victims in Waverly.

Lee’s answer: they’re looking at all options and reviewing the costs.

“Why is it you haven’t allocated more money for flood mitigation (in the budget),” asked WSMV4 Investigates.

“What are the right steps for the long term? What are the right strategies? What is the right technology to use for notification for people for flooding?” Lee said.

Freeman wonders if the debate over climate change is stalling any action.

“Do you think this comes down to a political standoff when it comes to climate change?” asked WSMV4 Investigates.

“Without question,” Freeman said.

WSMV4 Investigates asked the governor if he believes in climate change.

“Oh certainly. I think there are changes to the climate for thousands of years. What’s uniquely happening now, I think scientists will be studying that question for years to come,” Lee said.

In the meantime, Bullion said you only have to look to Waverly to know if the flooding crisis is getting worse. “I definitely know it is. And I think it’s climate change and the flooding is getting worse everywhere,” Bullion said.