Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified ownership of Barkley Dam.
TVA would struggle to control flooding in the face of a massive storm like the one that hit Nashville over the weekend, which the Army Corps of Engineers now describes as a 1,000-year flood event. But downtown Knoxville at least would have a height advantage over downtown Nashville, said Chuck Bach, general manager of TVA River Scheduling.
Although Fort Loudoun Lake's shore comes right up to Neyland Drive, the ground rises very steeply from there toward downtown and the University of Tennessee, he said, although Neyland Stadium and Thompson-Boling Arena are in close proximity to the water.
"If there was flooding on Neyland Drive, downtown is still up quite a bit from the river," he said. "Nashville, on the other hand, is right on the river."
Bach, who is in charge of managing the system of dams and reservoirs operated by TVA, said he is unaware of Knoxville ever facing a deluge like that Nashville just suffered.
Massive storms struck Tennessee and northern Mississippi over the weekend, killing nearly 30 people, at least 17 in Tennessee, and causing thousands of people to be evacuated.
Bach said the largest storms he can recall hitting East Tennessee over the last five or six years have left eight or nine inches of rain. More than 13 inches of rain fell over Nashville in a two-day period, causing the Cumberland River that winds through the capital city to overflow its banks. Neighborhoods and parts of downtown Nashville were flooded.
According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the flood that hit Nashville was a 1,000-year flood - an event that could be expected to happen once in every 1,000 years on average.
TVA is playing a secondary role in controlling the flooding in Nashville and Middle Tennessee. There are several dams on the Cumberland River, but none of them belong to TVA. They are operated by the Army Corps of Engineers, which has been providing updates on the flood through the website for its Nashville District.
According to a Tuesday press release, such a one-in-1,000 event presented a severe challenge to control.
"The Corps of Engineers is doing everything in our power to minimize flood damages, but the extreme and flash nature of this event makes some damages unavoidable," Lt. Col. Anthony Mitchell, commander of the Nashville District, said in a statement.
In another press release, Mitchell said the controlled release of water from Old Hickory Dam during the flooding actually prevented further flooding and loss of the dam. Water had reached a level of 451.4 feet behind the 452-foot-high dam, he said. Old Hickory Dam is on the Cumberland River about 25 miles north of Nashville.
"If we had allowed the lake to go to 452 and overtop Old Hickory Dam, the loss of that dam would have added another four feet to the flood levels in downtown Nashville," Mitchell said.
TVA has been working with the Corps of Engineers to help with flood control efforts by coordinating operation of the Corps' Barkley Dam and TVA's Kentucky Dam, Bach said. TVA also has eight non-power dams in West Tennessee that are helping control the flooding, he said.
While Knoxville's downtown would at least have some advantage over Nashville because of topography, Bach said there would be unavoidable flooding in areas if Knoxville was faced with rainfall on the order of what hit Nashville. Much would depend on the time of the year, where the rains actually fell, how short a time the rains fell and other factors, he said.
"I can't say the TVA system would be able to hold that much water because it depends on a lot of factors, but I can say we would be doing everything in our power to control the flooding," Bach said.
Business writer Ed Marcum may be reached at 865-342-6267.
© 2010, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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