ATLANTA — The owner of Grand Ole Opry, the renowned temple of American country music, sued the federal government Monday, alleging that the great Nashville flood of 2010 — which caused more than $250 million in damage to the Opry and related buildings — was the result of negligence on the part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Weather Service.
The spring 2010 flood of the Cumberland River resulted in 11 deaths in Nashville, affected 2,773 businesses and left an estimated $2 billion in private property damages, according to city government figures.
Monday’s lawsuit is notable not only because one of its main plaintiffs, Gaylord Entertainment Co., is the owner of the landmark Opry and the nearby Opryland Hotel, but also because the plaintiffs will try to hold the government accountable using a strategy similar to one employed by a group of New Orleanians who successfully sued the Army Corps over the floods that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The problem with suing the corps in such cases is that a provision in the federal Flood Control Act of 1928 largely prohibits lawsuits against the government when flood protection projects fail.
In New Orleans, however, some residents have argued in court — successfully, thus far — that their properties were flooded largely because of the corps’ failure to maintain a waterway known as MRGO, which was not part of the flood-control system, but rather a shipping channel.
In March, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the New Orleans shipping channel case. The federal government has asked a full panel of appellate justices to reconsider it.
In the Nashville case, plaintiffs argue that the flooding was caused by a botched handling of the Old Hickory Dam upriver. The suit alleges that the federal dam was congressionally authorized not as a flood-control project, but as a hydroelectric power and navigation project. As a result, it argues, the government should not be immune to a lawsuit.
The suit also alleges that the government failed to issue a proper warning of the danger.
Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department, said government lawyers would review the lawsuit and “respond appropriately in court.”
The Cumberland River flood, the suit says, “should have been an endurable, natural event,” but instead became a man-made flood when federal officials neglected to follow their own plans — particularly when they failed to create storage in the Old Hickory reservoir before the intense rainstorms of May 1 and May 2.
As a result, the suit alleges, water overtopped the Old Hickory Dam on May 2. When that occurred, the government, fearing damage to a powerhouse at the dam, decided on a “sudden release” of the accumulated waters, causing “unprecedented flooding,” according to the complaint.
Muddy river water breached the Grand Ole Opry, settling four feet above the stage, and destroying the backstage area, instruments and other equipment. A number of buildings that are part of the Opry complex had to be torn down. Much of the Opryland Hotel, including 100 rooms, was flooded, and the hotel was closed for six months.
Gaylord estimates its total damages were at least $250 million. The Opry reopened its doors in September 2010 with a gala concert featuring Brad Paisley, Keith Urban and others.