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Waverly flood victims suing railroad operator CSX for $450M

Damaged items on Maple Street in Waverly, Tenn., on Aug. 24, 2021, after a catastrophic flood.
Tasha Lemley
Damaged items on Maple Street in Waverly, Tenn., on Aug. 24, 2021, after a catastrophic flood.

Tennessee residents are suing a railroad company for $450 million in damages for emotional distress and injuries suffered after a record-breaking flood last summer.

On Aug. 21, 2021, a storm stalled over a small section of Middle Tennessee and caused catastrophic flooding in Humphreys County, where one town recorded nearly 21 inches of precipitation — the largest 24-hour rainfall record in a non-coastal state.

The flood sent cars into creeks, lifted houses off foundations and killed 20 people.

Family members of some of the individuals lost to the storm are now plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which has claims for wrongful death, negligent infliction of emotional distress and general negligence.

Basically, the lawsuit says that a culvert under part of a CSX Transportation railroad was blocked with debris, causing water to back up and pressurize before bursting through the blockage and into the town of Waverly.

“It didn’t need to happen. It shouldn’t have happened, and CSX should be held responsible, legally responsible, for what has occurred,” said Peter Flowers, an attorney in the lawsuit who referred to the event as “a manmade tidal wave.”

In a statement, CSX would not comment on specific allegations in the lawsuit but called the flood “an unprecedented and extraordinary event.” The company says its infrastructure is regularly inspected and meets federal regulations.

The company has been the subject of scrutiny in other flood-related cases, including in lawsuits after Hurricane Florence in North Carolina.

Flowers suggested that companies are supposed to design their infrastructure to withstand worst-case scenarios called “probable maximum precipitation” estimations, which are expected to continue shifting with climate change.

“You have to assume the worst could happen,” he said.

The new lawsuit also names two adjacent property owners to the CSX property.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced a two-year floodplain study of the Trace Creek watershed, which could provide some answers on local flood formation, timing and water velocity. USACE said the study could identify mitigation measures and help communities apply for federal financial assistance to prepare for future flooding.

As warming increases this century in Tennessee, the number and intensity of precipitation events are projected to increase, according to the latest state climate summary from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Caroline Eggers
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