A few days after I explored vibrant post-flood New Orleans, reborn and bustling in the wake of the storm nobody’s forgotten, I found myself in the lobby of the Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, the largest non-casino hotel in the country.
It’s home to the famed Grand Ole Opry, the shrine of country music, and sits along the Cumberland River, which poured over its banks last year, flooding the city and causing more than a billion dollars of damage in an event so severe it’s forecast to happen only once every thousand years.
More than nine inches of rain fell on Nashville in 24 hours. By May 3, 2010, the hotel was no longer on the banks of the river. It was in the river.
This July, in the vast lobby of the Opryland, I met Jenny Barker, the resort’s PR director. She pointed out the huge chandeliers, hanging about 10 feet above the floor. If these new fixtures had been here during the flood, she says, they would’ve been submerged.
Built in stages since 1977, when it opened with 601 rooms and a single ballroom, the hotel is an adventure in monumental proportion, even more so when seen through the lens of recovery from the disaster. Among other features, the Opryland has a quarter-mile-long artificial river, nine acres of tropical botanical gardens, dozens of waterfalls, thousands of rooms, restaurants of every stripe, more than 600,000 square feet of meeting space. It takes 3,600 employees to run the place, including the musician who valeted my car on check-in. Turns out he’s a friend of a friend of a friend.
The size of the hotel is so staggering–and so confusing upon arrival–that the hotel prints out maps for guests, directing them to their rooms. Carpeting is color-coded to help with way finding. I knew I was close to my room, in the Delta wing, when the green flooring gave way to red, indicating elevator bank D1 would be right around the corner. To make a phone call to another room, you have to press six numbers.
Oddly, my room had a balcony, indoors but overlooking the artificial river and a New Orleans-themed public space called Delta Island. The sun streamed in through a glass canopy, and the stillness of the air gave the feeling of being encased in some elaborate biodome. I was five miles from downtown Nashville, but it might as well have been on another planet.
The flood of 2010 reminded everyone that Opryland is just as real and as fragile as the rest of the rest of the city. Employees rounded up about 1,500 guests for evacuations and the hotel, like many businesses in the city, was shuttered.
Amazingly, the entire hotel opened just 195 days after 71.3 million gallons of water were pumped out of mechanical closets, underground passageways, atriums and the 115 guest rooms that were flooded. (Most guest rooms were not inundated.) In addition to repairs, the property used the flood-forced closure to carry out renovations. Again, the statistics are mind boggling: nearly 281,000 square feet of carpeting were replaced and more than a million drywall screws turned.
The rebuild also allowed Opryland to address environmental concerns. The resort modernized its laundry plant to consume less water and set goals to reduce energy consumption by 20 percent by 2015. Future additions–not an unlikely prospect given the expansionary history here–will pursue LEED certification.
It’s not all wonky either: This winter, a partnership with DreamWorks will bring characters from the Madagascar movie franchise to the hotel for a Christmas program, November 18 through January 8. Unsurprisingly, the show will involve an unbelievably large volume of ice: 2 million pounds of the stuff will be carved for the event.