On Friday, April 30, 2010 it started raining. Most Nashvillians rented a movie, grabbed a pizza and stayed in for the night. By lunch the next day, I remarked to my husband that the rain was “getting a little Biblical”. Within 2 hours I received a call that changed my life. The Deputy Mayor summoned me into the Emergency Command Center to help manage the city’s coordination and flood response. I did not leave that post for nearly six months.
I had been on the job at Metro Arts for just 4 months. Luckily, my previous career had included disaster training and coordination—just enough to be helpful in a city overwhelmed by water. By May 2, the region had absorbed more than 17 inches of water, one of the largest rain events ever recorded in America. More than 11 individuals lost their lives and more than 10,000 properties were damaged. 
We sustained millions in damage to the Nashville Symphony; the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum; and dozens of smaller artist studios, galleries, and community arts organizations. Hundreds of musicians and touring acts lost their equipment and costumes when SoundCheck Nashville was completely flooded.
Within a matter of moments, I went from Arts Administrator to co-managing the Office of Disaster Recovery. More than 3 years later, I still get twitchy when it rains for more than a few hours.
What I learned on the ground during the response and working with the community after the flood just might help someone else. Artists and grassroots arts agencies are particularly vulnerable and must think about disasters before the happen.
- You Can’t Hide from a Disaster—nobody wants to stockpile toilet paper or water “just because.” However, all communities have local threats that are specific to them. Call your local Office of Emergency Management to find out more about your city’s plans and the most likely threats.
- Study Up! Artists don’t bat an eye at a Meisner master class or a glass-blowing workshop. Why then, do we run fast from anything with emergency or disaster in the title? Red Cross offers a variety of emergency planning workshops for agencies – search by zip code or call your local affiliate for details!
- Protect Your Assets. The most important thing arts organizations have is their people. The second is historic record of what those people have created. When was the last time your organization documented its archives, photographed what is in storage or simply reviewed your insurance? If you don’t have adequate documentation of your assets, you will be unable to file any federal or local disaster assistance claims. Craft Artist Emergency Response Fund offers a low cost “Studio Protector” program that walks artists through step by step how to prepare themselves and protect their assets. Also, don’t forget business interruption insurance. If you are larger organization and payment of your workforce depends on your ability to perform, this is critical. The Nashville Symphony retained $42 million dollars in damage to the Schermerhorn Symphony Center and was unable to fulfill many of their contracts for the venue for more than 9 months. Had they not been properly insured, the impact to the agency would have been more catastrophic than the flood damage.
- Get a Plan! This seems like a no brainer, but we creatives like to create. As a sector, we would be well served to make disaster and continuity of operations planning a standard practice just like planning a season or fundraiser. Luckily the great folks at South Arts have designed a customizable web-platform that leads arts organizations through a step by step process on creating and finalizing a COOP (Continuity of Operations) plan.
Artists and arts organizations are a vital piece of a city’s recovery and sense of common purpose after disaster. Within days of the grimy flood waters receding, our cultural
institutions led the way in healing—offering free concerts, free museum days, and more. Musicians unions turned out in droves to salvage instruments and muck out moldy homes. The Nashville Musicians Union Disaster Relief Fund auctioned art created through flood damaged instruments and hundreds of musicians like Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift donated dollars and ticket revenues to fuel our recovery.
Art was the path to healing for many Nashvillians. As artists and art leaders, we owe it to our communities to prepare our organizations, so that we can be up and ready after the storm, fire, earthquake, or worse. After all, we know that nothing can replace the sheer power of creative energy in collective community recovery.