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10 years ago, much of Nashville was underwater
By Tom Adkinson

NASHVILLE, Tennessee – It’s no exaggeration to say people have been flooding into Nashville in recent years – at one point more than a hundred new residents a day. What most of those newcomers don’t realize is that 10 years ago, there was a flood of another kind, the Biblical kind. Thirteen inches of rain will do that.

nashville flood 2010
A photo mural of the 2010 flood shows the muddy Cumberland River pushing over Riverfront Park into downtown Nashville. Image courtesy of Frist Art Museum.

A look back at the Nashville flood of 2010 – an event that was immense, devastating and life-altering – is available at Nashville’s Frist Art Museum through May 17 in an exhibition called “The Nashville Flood, Ten Years Later.”

The museum uses almost 50 photographs to recall the time the Cumberland River crested almost 12 feet above flood stage, pushing its way over Riverfront Park into downtown’s honky tonk district, pouring into the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, covering the stage of the Grand Ole Opry House and visiting destruction on neighborhoods scattered throughout the city. Thousands of people were caught off guard, many unaware they were vulnerable.

fire department rescue team nashville 2010 flood
A fire department rescue team navigates a flooded stretch of Harding Road near the Belle Meade shopping area. Image courtesy of Frist Art Museum.

All but one of the images on display came from eight news photographers at The Tennessean newspaper. The final contribution was from a staff member at the Frist.

The flood hit on the weekend of May 1 and 2 and received relatively little national media attention. The Frist cites two reasons for the oversight – competing news stories such as a failed car bombing in Times Square in New York City and Nashville’s organized and smooth recovery response.

old kentucky bourbon bar
Mountains of debris tower over a truck and a public works employee before relocation to landfills. Image courtesy of Frist Art Museum.

The exhibition features images and excerpts from oral histories from 10 neighborhoods. Whether you know the difference between ritzy Belle Meade, rural Whites Creek or suburban Bellevue, the images and stories stop you in your tracks.

A single guitar represents the hundreds of musical instruments lost when artists’ storage facilities were flooded. Image courtesy of Frist Art Museum.

One photo shows three Nashville Fire Department rescuers navigating a flooded boulevard in an inflatable raft, another shows county inmates who volunteered to fill 10,000 sandbags with 72 tons of sand and yet another shows mountains of debris in a city park staging location before removal to landfills.

The exhibition’s only artifact is typically Nashville, a guitar. It is emblematic of the many musical instruments lost to the flood, particularly at a business called Soundcheck, where touring musicians store instruments and equipment. Artists such as Vince Gill, Brad Paisley and Keith Urban might not have lived in flood zones, but they lost precious guitars.

Gripping text panels in the exhibition remind you that the flood killed 26 people in the region, 11 of them in Nashville.

“The exhibition tells the flood’s story with compelling visuals. We want to invite a deeper exploration of the event. In particular, it tells stories about Nashville volunteerism and resilience,” said Ellen Pryor, the Frist’s director of communications.

frist art museum nashville
Instead of having a permanent collection, the Frist Art Museum attracts visitors with perpetually changing exhibitions. Image by Tom Adkinson.

Indeed, Nashville’s volunteerism and resilience are two reasons so many people don’t even know the flood happened. Cleanup was relatively quick. Businesses reopened. Much work happened out of sight. Nashville persevered – but this exhibition is a reminder of drama and trauma on a grand scale.

Admission to “The Nashville Flood, Ten Years Later” is free, but the ever-changing nature of the Frist Art Museum always warrants buying a museum admission. Among events in 2020 are the only U.S. showing of “J.W.W. Turner: Quest for the Sublime,” which was organized in cooperation with Tate, and “African American Art from the New Orleans Museum of Art.”

Trip-planning resources: and

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s new book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available at

Published January 24, 2020

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