Nashville Floods: The Inequities of a Natural Disaster Are usually Man-Made

Whether natural or man-made, disasters have a way of bringing people together. They also have a way of exposing the differences in how we experience a crisis.

As the world knows, last Sunday, Nashville was pummeled by horrendous flood waters that so far have left 18 dead in Tennessee, thousands of Nashvillians without power, and homes and businesses in ruins.

As I write this, numerous communities around Nashville are gathering to help in the cleanup efforts for friends, family, church members, co-workers and perfect strangers. The kindness shown in times like these is profoundly moving, and yet not everyone in this disaster is experiencing the same level of support.

Jenn Garcia and Jonna Laidlaw, two employees at Oasis Center Inc. (an organization that serves youth) who are best friends and live next door to one another, were evacuated from a middle-class neighborhood north of Nashville and have been living with their families in a hotel since last Sunday.

After the storm, their street was more like a lake than a neighborhood. They bought a dinghy and have been boating themselves back and forth to assess the damage to their houses. Co-workers, friends and some drive-by volunteers have clamored to help, and a revolving crew is cleaning up the debris of their former lives. They are two among thousands who suffer the same fate.

Both Garcia and Laidlaw were initially relieved knowing they had flood insurance. Receiving a call back from an insurance adjuster within 24 hours seemed like a good sign -- at least until Garcia was informed that the flood insurance she purchased covers the building only, not its contents. For both Garcia and Laidlaw, almost all of their possessions have been ruined and will not be replaced. For two middle class working professionals employed at a nonprofit organization, this will be an extreme hardship.

Neither remembers her insurance company clarifying that their coverage was for dwelling only. But it doesn't matter now.

Insurance adjusters informed both Garcia and Laidlaw after the file examiner reviews the claim and are approved they will receive a check within 2-3 weeks for the structural damages. The contractor they were hoping to hire was eager to get started but will not begin repairs until the check is in hand.

According to the contractor (who did not want to be identified) he had just returned from a housing development in Williamson County called "Cottonwood Estates" in Franklin, TN where FEMA set up a temporary site situated next to several Insurance Company Adjusters who where issuing checks to homeowners on the spot.

When I asked Garcia how it made her feel to know her family would have to wait two weeks while others in one of the wealthiest counties in the state were receiving money immediately, she shook her head and indicated it was too difficult to speak.

In spite of their circumstances, Garcia and Laidlaw are upbeat. In our brief conversation, both mentioned their good fortune to have friends and co-workers to help. They're thankful for people who have been so responsive and supportive thus far.

Edubina Arce is among a set of Nashvillians who are perhaps not feeling so enriched with support. Arce is a former criminal judge from Bogota, Columbia, who is now a real estate agent and studying for a master's degree at Lipscomb University. Arce has dedicated the past nine years to helping Latino families prepare financially to buy homes.

While working as an interpreter at a Nashville real estate law firm, Arce discovered that many Hispanics were being charged higher interest rates and closing costs. She became a Realtor so she could prevent immigrants from entering mortgage contracts they could not afford.

One of her recent clients, Ernesto, called on Sunday to tell her that the creek behind his rental house was rising. When he called the landlord, he was told not to worry about it.
As the water rose, Ernesto became frightened for his family and called 911 to report the situation. He was told there were much worse situations than his.

Finally, Arce told Ernesto he could bring his family to her one-room downtown condo for the evening and agreed to help him find shelter. Ernesto's family included a wife, four children and later a cousin who was also flooded out of his rental property. By Sunday evening, Arce had nine people -- including herself -- sleeping in her small condo.

Another client to whom she sold a house on Emerson Pike called for help. She has flood insurance but cannot get a call back from the insurance company. She cannot afford a hotel, and her infant is already starting to get sick from the humidity and lack of electricity.

Even after living in Nashville for almost 10 years, being highly educated and respected in the Hispanic community, Arce said she faced significant challenges in trying to find help for her flood roommates.

"For one, my accent" she said. "The language barrier is something many [Hispanics] struggle with. The racism." Arce said that often when people hear her accent, they assume she is "ignorant" and often are dismissive. "There is a big difference in the way people respond to, say, a British accent as opposed to Spanish," she said.

After calling several places and not getting through, Arce finally connected with someone at Lipscomb. Because she is a student there and well known, she was able to find help
for Ernesto and his family.

It seems the effects of devastation in a natural disaster are not felt equally. Perhaps the reasons are the man-made parts of such tragedies.