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When the waters rose and flooded most of the Nashville area, when she lost power in her home, RHD site supervisor Cassandra Lauderdale did what most RHD staffers did during the floods that overwhelmed much of Tennessee:

She went to work, caring for Wilma at one of the RHD Nashville’s residential facilities, and logged a 40-hour shift to make sure her clients were safe.

The Cumberland River swelled and flooded after record-setting rain hit the region May 1. The floods caused an estimated $1 billion in damage to the region and more than 30 people lost their lives. Thousands more lost their homes and possessions to the rushing water. Almost miraculously, the clients living in 10 residential units at RHD Nashville came through safe and sound – in large part because of the heroic efforts of the staff there.

RHD caregivers across the area stayed with their clients, even as their own homes were washed away or badly damaged. In units that require 24/7 staffing, some logged 60 hours straight without relief. They were often without power, managing the crisis under tremendously difficult circumstances, and always making sure their clients were cared for and secure.

“They were such troopers,’’ RHD Nashville director Jordan Allen said. “We had an emergency plan, and we communicated with everybody, but we found out there are some things you’re just going to be unprepared for no matter what you do. We were really very lucky. Everybody did such a great job; they just answered the call no matter what, and they really put the clients first.”

RHD site supervisor Diane Orsbon saw the flood waters rushing into her front yard, pulled her truck out of the driveway and into the lot across the street, up against a sheet metal factory that blocked the surge of water. Her first call was to her staff, and she stayed on the phone all day – watching her house flood from across the street – talking her staff and clients through the emergency.

“I had to find out who could get out, who was OK, who was in trouble – and then we had to try to get them as quick as we could,’’ Orsbon said. “I had to know who was being evacuated, and if they weren’t OK, that we were doing what we could to make it OK.

“It was scary. People were stranded, and we couldn’t do anything to get to them. I just felt helpless. But it tells me a lot about us that everybody tried to help, and we were there for each other, and we got through it.”

Through phone calls and text messages, staffers communicated with each other and relayed stories of difficulties that were being managed and, somehow, overcome.

Michelle Cantrell logged a 60-hour shift managing the crisis at her residence and a family crisis from afar, talking on the phone to her daughter as her daughter was being rescued by boat. LaDiedra High pulled a two-day shift by herself. At Erik’s house, staff led by Michael Myers calmly managed a potentially disastrous situation without power essentially trapped in a remote area.

“We called a lot, because we were very worried,’’ said Erik’s mother, Sara. “And Michael was so reassuring. They just took care of everything. They’re our heroes.”

Even as RHD’s clients were safe and secure, some employees were not so lucky. Lakeisha Hicks was returning from the hospital with her daughter Mykiah, when she found police cars blocking the road to her home. With all roads closed, they fled to a motel with nothing but the clothes on their backs. As she turned on the TV to watch the news, she saw camera crews filming in her neighborhood, and showing her home, under water.

“There it was,’’ Hick said. “I thought: Oh my gosh, we lost everything.”

Narrow escape

Aerry Austin walked through the front yard of his home, picking through his possessions.

“That belonged to my grandmother,” he said, pointed at pieces of furniture. “That was my mom’s.”

Almost everything Austin owned was sitting in his front yard, irreparably damaged. Like many people in the Nashville area, he lost everything. The living room he’d worked to remodel had to be gutted, and everything tossed out – books, clothes, mementos and memories.

“Oh, I can’t even look at it,’’ he said. “It hurts to see it.”

Austin saw the flood coming, and evacuated with some clothes and his dogs, but went back to his neighborhood to get a friend who’d tried to wait it out. He drove his truck back through the water, and as he argued with his friend the water rose from their ankles to their knees.

“I just said: Look, it’s time to go,’’ Austin said.

They barely made it out. Several of the homes in the area had an “X” painted on doors or windows – a marker that the people there had been rescued by boat. It really did happen that fast; in minutes the water was on top of them. And it happened with a weird randomness; Austin incredulously points out a small charcoal grill next to his house that sat in the very same place where he’d left it. But the doghouse he’d built was gone.

“I found it this morning,’’ he said. “It’s two blocks away.”

Austin was RHD’s Tom Scheuren Award winner for dedication to his clients and was featured on rhd.org for a remarkable success with Randall, an RHD client who spoke his first words to Austin after 52 years of living in silence. Today he’s another resilient soul trying to piece things back together.

“I am done with water,’’ Austin said. “I’ll tell you what, if I see a fire hydrant spewing water I’m headed in the other direction.”

Austin works as an on-call specialist with RHD, going where he’s needed. As he gutted his house, threw out his stuff, and tried to find a new place to live, the phone rang. Austin was needed somewhere. He went to work.

Looking out for each other

Amy Gray’s basement flooded. She stood in the kitchen, staring at the water, and at one point said aloud: “Please don’t come any closer.” But it did, and the flood caused a gas leak that chased her and he children from her home. She stayed with Becky Cameron, a fellow RHD employee in the Nashville office.

“She’s my friend,’’ Cameron said, with a shrug.

All across the state, people were there for each other. Lauderdale fought through the water to Wilma’s house because the staffer there pleaded for relief to go help her mother, who was stranded across town in the flood. So Lauderdale took two days there by herself.

“I just tried to make sure Wilma wasn’t nervous or scared,’’ Lauderdale said. “We watched TV as long as we had power, so that she knew what was going on.
“From Jordan, to my supervisor, to me, to my staff, we had great communication through the chain of command. Everything was handled very well. We all understood the situation, we knew what we had to do, we knew we had as much support as possible. We were all so concerned about our people, because everywhere you looked there was so much water. But everybody worked together, and we came out OK.”

RHD site supervisor Alice Duncan had to be rescued from her home by friends and her son. She saw telephone poles floating past her house and knew the situation was dire, but she was caring for her granddaughter and couldn’t carry her out by herself. Her son Edward got as close as he could and waded through the flood to get his daughter (“He put her on his shoulder like a sack of potatoes and walked her out,’’ Duncan said), and then Edward and neighbors and friends carried Duncan out.

“I felt like if I picked my foot up, I’d float away,” she said. “The water was so fast. You know how people say it looked like a movie, that it didn’t look real? Well, that is what it looked like – but I knew good and well that it was real.”

It was Sunday evening when Duncan had to be rescued from her home. On Monday morning, bright and early, she was at work.

“The girls were counting on me,’’ Alice said. “They don’t like change, so I try not to be out. I wouldn’t upset them, just because of my situation. Those girls are my family.”