VOL. 126 | NO. 94 | Friday, May 13, 2011
Memphians Come Together in Flood Response
At first glance, the Great Flood of 2011 has been a tale of two cities. Hundreds evacuated their homes, and the rising water caused millions of dollars worth of damage to property and infrastructure throughout the city.
Yet most Memphians have watched the flood from dry land, safe from the deluge. Only areas along the Mississippi and its tributaries were directly affected by the high water. The Office of Preparedness cut original estimates of properties in danger almost in half to just more than 2,800. No deaths have been reported in the Memphis area.
The image projected by the media is somewhat different. According to national and international news outlets, the entire city of Memphis appears to be completely under water. Friends from other states and overseas have emailed to make sure my family and I are safe. Local officials have felt it necessary to reassure the world that our local landmarks, especially Graceland, are not in danger. Television has turned the suffering of some Memphians into the suffering of all.
Despite the differences in our experiences of the flood, there is some truth to the idea that the flood has affected all of Memphis.
Most people believe that when a catastrophe strikes, people panic and care only about their own personal survival. Movies and popular culture dramatize disasters based on expecting the worst about human nature and a fearful desire for self-preservation.
By contrast, research shows that during disasters, people actually pull together to save their neighbors. We naturally reach out to perfect strangers in distress. In case after case throughout history, individuals have found ways to rescue those in danger around them and worked to rebuild their communities. We may expect the worst, but in fact we are often at our best during catastrophes.
That’s what happened in Memphis, even in parts of the city, which remained dry. When the water started to rise, volunteers flocked to the banks of the river to fill sandbags. Shelters opened at churches throughout the county to take in those who lost their homes. City and county officials coordinated relief efforts efficiently. Red Cross and other organizations sprang into action. Fundraisers have helped to raise money for victims. Countless Memphians have prayed for one another.
Mayor A C Wharton Jr. himself noted the goodwill across the city when he said of the hundreds of Memphians hard at work on one another’s behalf: “Their spirit of volunteering continues to inspire those of us here in Shelby County and others across the nation.”
The lesson of the Great Flood of 2011 is similar to that of other major disasters, but it is well worth repeating. When events seem to overtake us, people rally to help one another. And that sense of common cause brings us together as one city, whether we are in the flood zone or on dry land.
Jeffrey H. Jackson is associate professor of history and director of the Environmental Studies and Sciences program at Rhodes College. He is the author of “Paris Under Water: How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910.”