Jeff Fisher has been coaching in the NFL for going on 25 years now, the last 13 in Nashville. But he's never had a day of work like Monday, when sunny skies that had turned as blue as a Titans jersey belied the danger and trouble that swirled all around in the worst flooding to hit middle Tennessee in decades.
"It's devastating,'' the Titans longtime head coach told me late Monday afternoon via cell phone. "I can't describe to you the amount of rain that fell here for two days. It was 16, 18 inches in downtown Nashville, in less than a 48-hour period. It was unbelievable.''
Our news-watching attention as a nation in recent days has been rapt and focused on the car-bomb plot in Times Square and the oil spill clean-up in the Gulf of Mexico. But while those two sagas continued to unfold, the people of middle Tennessee on Saturday and Sunday were getting pounded by what some have called "a thousand-year rain,'' leading to at least 10 deaths in the Nashville area and still unknown levels of damage to the city and some of its most well-known landmarks.
Fisher spent his Monday driving through the flood waters to check on the team's all-but-deserted Baptist Sports Park complex, which had been sand-bagged against the flood, and later in the day, after a mandatory evacuation of the entire MetroCenter area had been ordered by police, he tried unsuccessfully to reach LP Field, which is near the banks of the swollen Cumberland River and started taking on water Monday afternoon. He was turned away by authorities before reaching the stadium, but reports said as much as six feet of water eventually covered the field and swamped the service level of the facility, which includes both home and visiting locker rooms.
The Cumberland crested nearly 12 feet above flood stage at around 8 p.m. Monday, reaching a depth of almost 52 feet. Reports say 19 people are confirmed dead in Tennessee, and there have been 30 fatalities from the storm and its aftermath in a three-state area. Fisher said he'll never forget the sight of people making impromptu rescues on Monday, using any means necessary.
"I think it's important to point out that we in the Titans organization were very, very fortunate,'' Fisher said. "I heard from the office of emergency management that this is epic in terms of a disaster for middle Tennessee. It's really tragic. There are people who are stranded, who have lost their homes, lost everything.
"The incredible thing is that so many people have gone and helped. They've thrown their boats into the water and just went and rescued people, all day long. It has been a tremendous effort.''
I talked with Fisher, Titans defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil and the team's director of media relations, Robbie Bohren, late Monday afternoon, and none of them knew any member of the Titans organization who had suffered any meaningful loss or damage from the storm or flood. Longtime Tennessee special teams coach Alan Lowry and his wife, Donna, were left stranded at home, with the floodwaters just a few precarious inches from the doorstep of their house, but the worst was seemingly averted.
"We have several coaches baling water in their basement, but nothing too bad,'' Fisher said. "The Lowrys live between a horseshoe and the Cumberland, and they can't get out. They have no power, and we're all using cell phones to communicate at this point, charging them off our cars. Since they closed down our team office, we've all been just texting our employees to keep in touch.''
Cecil described some surreal scenes that he saw Monday morning as he tried to drive his truck to the team's facility, just a few miles north of the flooded downtown. Police didn't allow him access to Baptist Sports Park, but he was out and about enough to piece together how widespread the damage was.
"There are some places that just got crushed, and I mean crushed,'' Cecil said. "Water up to the roof, homes totally obliterated. In the areas that got hit hard, it's definitely life-threatening. We are lucky that we live on high ground, but Alan and Donna, they were definitely on the cusp of being in some serious stuff. They told me if it gets any worse, we're going to be in big trouble.
"Driving this morning I saw something I've never seen before. They closed Interstate 40 last night due to the flooding, and when I tried to get into town today going east on I-40, there were literally thousands of trucks just parked on the side of the road. It was almost a solid, entire convoy of parked trucks all the way into town. Those trucks had just been stranded there all night in the flood.''
On a normal day, the Harpeth River in suburban Nashville is about 20 yards wide, just a little tributary that connects to the much larger Cumberland. But Cecil said on Monday morning he started seeing the river overflow and cover the road he was driving on about a mile inland from its banks.
"It's amazing, but the river just came up the road to meet you,'' Cecil said. "It was that high. More than anything, it's the fear of the unknown that you're dealing with. They're saying the water level has never, ever in history been this high. They had a big flood here in the '20s or '30s where the water mark was at 44 feet downtown. And it's at 51 feet now, so it's unprecedented. The fear is of something happening that you haven't ever even thought of, and no one has any experience with.''
There's a sizable levee connected to the Cumberland only 150 yards or so across the street from the Titans' team complex in the MetroCenter area, and one of the reasons Fisher made his way into the office early Monday morning was to see for himself if concerns that it was leaking were true. Images of New Orleans and the levees that failed during Katrina's aftermath in 2005 no doubt flashed through Fisher's mind.
"The whole area was blocked off, but I got in in a truck,'' Fisher said. "The facility is kind of surrounded by water, and if that levee is breached, the whole MetroCenter area floods. Our office and our fields would have been under a good bit of water. But when I left there, we still had no damage to the facility whatsoever. The water never completely covered our fields, and we sandbagged the west side of our practice bubble, because that's where the equipment and the generator that maintains the inflation is.''
Titans assistant head coach/linebackers coach Dave McGinnis called me Tuesday morning and said he too, along with Fisher, was one of the few able to reach the team complex on Monday, before authorities ordered the power shut off and the mandatory evacuation. The complex remains closed Tuesday.
"It was crazy,'' McGinnis said. "Just an unprecedented amount of water. I've been through a storm or two, but nothing like this. Jeff and I were in there yesterday, and there were fish swimming in the team parking lot. Some pretty good sized carp, too. We walked across the street to look at that levee, and it was scary how fast that river was running. It was definitely a force of nature not to be fooled with.''
It's too early to know how much damage there was to the field and the service level of LP Field, which sits near the east bank of the Cumberland. There were reports that the water level quickly reached the first row of seats and inundated the service level of the stadium once a flooded Nashville Electric Service substation nearby had to be shut down at around 11 a.m. on Monday, cutting power to LP Field.
"When the electricity went off, the pumps went off, and the field filled immediately with four to six feet of water,'' Fisher said. "The service level has water in it. I've not been down there, but our locker room is slightly elevated, so there's a chance it's not under water. But there's just no place for all the water to go. Not until the river recedes. And the thing is, it's gorgeous today (Monday). Not a cloud in the sky. It's the best day we've had all spring.''
The Titans were fortunate in one respect in that the two-day rookie mini-camp they held over the weekend was on Friday and then again Saturday morning. By the time the rain started really pounding Saturday afternoon, the team had gotten its new players on their way out of town. The team's next round of scheduled OTA's are not until next week.
Though the damage to LP Field might be significant, it was just one of several Nashville landmarks affected by the flood. The city's Bridgestone Arena, where the NHL's Nashville Predators play, has up to four inches of standing water on the building's event level, and even more in the basement. Tourist attractions like the Grande Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame were shut down due to water damage, and the Gaylord Opryland Hotel might not re-open for months after being flooded, forcing the evacuation of about 1,500 guests to a nearby high school.
"When you saw those shots of the Opryland Hotel, with 10 feet of water in it, that's when you realized how much water we were dealing with,'' Fisher said. "Those people came into town for a conference, and now they're staying at a Red Cross center. It's unbelievable.''