VOL. 123 | NO. 29 | Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Hickory Hill Residents Complain of Slow Storm Response
By Bill Dries
ALMOST ON: Hickory Hill home and business owners huddle with utility officials around a map of areas in Southeast Memphis still without power as of Saturday. Power was expected to be restored to all but a few business customers this week - one week after a swarm of tornadoes devastated a five-state region.
There was no looting last week in Hickory Hill, the section of Southeast Memphis hit harder than any other place in the city by a swarm of tornadoes that devastated a five-state region. So said Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin at a weekend meeting with about 60 area residents. "There was none," he stressed.
Godwin acknowledged that some people were tempted during the crisis to take what wasn't theirs. He also acknowledged that some homeowners wouldn't leave their damaged homes for fear of looters.
Godwin was one of several division directors and other city employees - about 40 in all - who showed up en masse for the Saturday session at Greater Community Temple Church of God In Christ on Winchester Road.
The meeting featured more questions than comments, but when Martha Murray complained about the lack of response on her block of Pinbranch Court, the response from the city officials was swift.
They apologized repeatedly and vowed to begin trying to resolve the problem by the end of the day. They huddled with Murray and her daughter as the meeting continued, wrote down details and started calling others on cell phones.
With due haste
Murray lives with her daughter and grandchildren near the epicenter of the destruction. It is the hardest-hit neighborhood in the hardest-hit area of Memphis. The DCS Logistics warehouse where three people died last Tuesday is on the first street south of their home. So is a Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division electrical substation that was so heavily damaged utility officials initially couldn't find a way to rewire around it to get power from other substations.
"I had three generations in that bathtub with me," Murray said Saturday as she sought to focus attention on the plight of those who took cover in their homes near the industrial and commercial properties that have been in the spotlight for most of the last week.
Murray told of hearing her neighbors cry for help at the height of the storm. No one in her family was hurt, but the storm left a gaping hole in the roof of the house and it appears to be a likely candidate for demolition.
"We are taxpaying citizens," she said as she scolded the city leaders. "Something should have happened and should have happened sooner. ... Memphis needs to come together."
Godwin didn't argue with Murray. He pointed out that the police officer Murray saw on her street right after the storm passed wasn't someone who just happened by. He wasn't wearing a uniform because he was a plainclothes officer in an unmarked police vehicle, Godwin explained as he assured her he knows the officer. He was one of more than 100 officers called on to saturate the neighborhood and area as soon as the tornadoes moved on.
City Council member Harold Collins, whose district includes Hickory Hill, helped organize Saturday's session. That included getting police to assign officers to damaged homes so the owners could attend the meeting and not worry about looters as their specific concerns were addressed. Another resident at the meeting was a man who slept with his shotgun by his side in the days after the storm because of similar concerns.
As the week began, power had been restored to all MLGW customers, and citizens were to begin applying for disaster assistance at the Hickory Hill Community Center, a block away from the Hickory Ridge Mall. Although the Sears store in the mall that lost a wall reopened for business this weekend, the entire mall's structural integrity still is being determined.
Memphis Fire Department spokesman Lt. Keith Staples estimated 400 people were inside the mall when a tornado touched down there last Tuesday night. No one was seriously injured. No one had to be rescued. The first fire units were called to the nearby Taco Bell on the other side of Winchester, which was heavily damaged but with no serious injuries either.
After firefighters began assessing the situation at the mall, they then got the first calls for help from the nearby DCS warehouse on Challenge Drive. Three people died in the wreckage. It took a specialized Memphis fire- rescue unit three hours to free another eight people who all are expected to recover.
"This was a test for us," Staples said. "Unfortunately, our test comes at a high price. ... But I think we passed the test."
For homeowners who survived with their homes largely intact, removing the debris will be a priority this week. But the rules for getting federal aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency forbid city crews from going onto private property to pick up the debris.
Local EMA director Bob Nations said the city and county are still talking with FEMA officials about trying to work around the restriction. FEMA Director R. David Paulison was in Memphis Thursday on a tour of storm damage with Gov. Phil Bredesen.
"Some of the challenges are that it's process," Nations said to the Hickory Hill homeowners.
City Public Works Director Dwan L. Gilliom said sanitation crews will work with homeowners as best as they can once the trash gets to the curb where it is supposed to be.
"We're not going to ask any questions about who put it there or where it came from," he said.
The weekend session closed with a prayer by City Council member Joe Brown, who described the storms as "the destruction God's wrath has brought upon you." Brown didn't elaborate on the point. A few people in the church raised their bowed heads suddenly in reaction but as Brown's prayer moved on to other subjects, they continued to bow their heads in prayer.