Chattanooga Flood

Heavy rain on the mountain. Photo by Abby Whisler.

Heavy rain on the mountain. Photo by Abby Whisler.

On Thursday morning, April 16, a flash flood warning was issued for multiple counties in the Tennessee valley, including Hamilton and Marion Counties, as well as for Dade, Catoosa, and Walker Counties in Georgia. The flooding resulted in numerous road closings, as well as several scattered power outages.

Downtown Chattanooga was one of the most heavily affected of the areas of the Tennessee Valley. Several roads were closed due to the volume of water, including Brainerd Road, Cummings Highway, 3rd Street, 23rd Street, and East Main Street. Cummings Highway in particular proved treacherous for motorists, as several cars were reported to be stranded in that area.

Hamilton County Schools canceled all afternoon and evening activities in response to the flooding, and a number of other local organizations followed suit. Property damage was also reported, with businesses sporting outdoor components being hit the hardest. The Kandy Kastle Day Care, which holds its programs on the property of the Friendship Community Church, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that it estimated nearly $3,500 worth of damages.

Historically, Chattanooga is no stranger to severe flooding. In the period between 1867 and 1917, Chattanooga flooded at least five separate times, with the Tennessee River frequently rising well above flood stage. Conditions were most severe during the 1867 flood, when the river rose to 50 feet, or 28 feet above flood stage.

In response to damage caused by the floods, city officials proposed a plan that would protect the city from that amount of devastation should a flood of that magnitude occur in the future. Rather than erecting dams in the river, they raised the level of the streets by nearly an entire story. Work centered on four central roads—Market, Broad, Chestnut, and Cherry—and was only moderately successful. At least one Chattanooga Daily Times editorial from the late 1800s expressed builders' frustration with the uneven street levels. “We have hitched up a corner here, a block there, and a part of a block yonder,” he writes, “each bringing a lawsuit for damage [and] confusing builders so they cannot tell what height to put their first floors.”

The project was also only slightly successful at preventing flood damage, as yet another flood in 1917—long after construction was completed—rose to the rooftops of many buildings, destroying businesses and leaving large numbers of people homeless. A definitive solution for the flooding problem was not found until President Franklin D. Roosevelt founded the Tennessee Valley Authority, which commissioned a series of dams to control the river.

Since the dams were built, Chattanooga has yet to see the likes of the 1867 or 1917 floods. However, last Thursday's flood was one of the more severe in recent years. Derek Eisentrout, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that the storm was caused by the convergence of a variety of factors: “The combination of a warm southwestern flow of moisture, plus daytime heating and an upper-level disturbance, caused instability, leading to the heavy storms,” he explained.

Despite the delays and property damage, no injuries were reported as a result of the flooding. Chattanooga's sewage and drainage infrastructure were also undamaged by the deluge. As Justin Holland, deputy administrator for Public Works, reported to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, “It was just an overwhelming volume of rain at one time.”