“It’s heartbreaking. You walk through these buildings and feel like the soul has been taken out of them. There are no customers. … There’s no joy. There’s no music playing in the Grand Ole Opry.”
These were among the only words I could summon standing in front of TV cameras and newspaper reporters the morning of Monday, May 3. I had just landed at the Nashville airport, rushed to the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and toured the property with the media. The day before I had been stranded in the Miami airport as a record-setting rain fell in Nashville—a rain so great it swept away cars, homes, buildings and lives. It also left up to 9 feet of water in 800,000 square feet of our hotel and 4 feet of water on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.
The enormity of it all was difficult to grasp and certainly difficult to put into words. All day Sunday, May 2, those of us on the leadership team were in constant contact with one another, monitoring and reporting on water levels in the Cumberland River, which snakes its way through Nashville and surrounds our properties in an oxbow known as Pennington Bend. The reports we were receiving from government agencies continued to indicate our levee would be high enough to hold back the rising river. However, visual inspections by our team told us the information we were receiving simply wasn’t accurate. The river was rising higher and faster than agencies had earlier projected.
Eventually we decided to evacuate the hotel—1,500 guests and our employees, or STARS as we call them—to a nearby high school. There was no debate among the team on the phone that evening. Life safety was our first priority. Even if the river didn’t top the levee, we thought it would be better to inconvenience our guests and STARS rather than risk harm to anyone. A few hours later, with everyone safe at the high school, water began seeping into the lobby of the hotel.
Back to Monday morning. The interviews and media tour were complete. Guests who had an uncomfortable night in the shelter were off to the airport, which was open again. The leadership team at the property had customer transition well in hand. It was time to begin answering the questions we’d posed during our hourly conference calls Sunday night: How long will our businesses be closed? How extensive is the damage? How quickly can we pump the water out? What do we tell our customers? What do we tell our STARS who cannot come to work? Where will the displaced leaders find office space? How did our country music archives and memorabilia fare? We needed to plan updates for the board of directors and our shareholders, but what would we tell them?
Although a difficult road lay ahead of us, we were extremely fortunate in one respect: During the crisis we were able to fall back on our emergency preparedness, business continuity and crisis communication plans. These three interconnected plans provided a template as we reacted to the increasing threat of the flood and evacuated a large number of guests to safety in a reasonably orderly fashion. The plans also served us well as we set about answering the questions facing us, making some tremendously difficult decisions in the process. At times the task of finding solutions to all these problems seemed never-ending, but we continued making progress day by day.
Now that it has been several months since the flood, I can attest to just how far we have come. The rebuilding process is almost complete: The Opry House has recently reopened, and our hotel will soon follow in mid-November. I also now have some perspective and can look on the bright side of those dark days. As tragic as they were, the events of early May gave us an opportunity for a fresh start. The flood spurred us to make the hotel and Grand Ole Opry even better than they were before, and we now can take great pride in reintroducing these cherished businesses to our customers, our city and the world.